Ask an Ohio Democrat about Gov. John Kasich and you'll likely hear him described as a partisan bully who caters to the extreme wing of his party with legislation that punishes the middle class. Ask a member of the Tea Party and you'll probably hear a different story. Kasich, say some conservative activists, has joined the ranks of a GOP establishment that has given up on its principles and embraced a cowardly centrism.
The anger toward Kasich is illustrative of a larger tension within the state Republican Party. There's long been speculation the Tea Party could split from the GOP and become its own entity, but Ohio activists are among the first to begin making serious steps toward that end. After the election of Matt Borges, a Kasich favorite, as state GOP chair, Tea Party runner-up Tom Zawistowski is meeting with Constitution Party leaders to discuss the possibility of joining up as a third party.
Another group of activists penned an op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer Thursday threatening to defect and calling out Kasich, Sen. Rob Portman and House Speaker John Boehner, among others. Meanwhile, Kasich has been unable to muster support for his proposed Medicaid expansion, as state House Republicans heeded the howls of conservatives decrying increased spending from the federal government.
Kasich has avoided many of the contentious issues that characterized his early-term agenda -- a smart move with re-election looming -- but conservative activists are furious at the push for a Medicaid expansion and the governor's refusal to get behind other issues like right-to-work legislation. While Kasich did not weigh in either way on right-to-work, he was granted cover by state Senate leaders who quickly moved to shut down talk of the proposal before he was forced to take a side.
Groups like Americans For Prosperity and local tea party factions have hit Kasich repeatedly over the Medicaid expansion. In turn, he has made several impassioned appeals to support it, calling it the "humane" thing to do. That battle comes as other Ohio Republicans have found their own ways to draw Tea Party fire; Portman's support of gay marriage and Boehner's difficult relationship with some of the most conservative members of his caucus have many Tea Partiers convinced they're not playing for the same team.
For now, Kasich's re-election position is solid if not secure. Polling gives him a slight early lead, and all signs point to a hard-fought battle with Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. But if the Tea Party follows through on its threats to split -- or feels antagonized enough to simply sit out this cycle -- it could do serious harm to his 2014 chances. So far, the anger has been limited to words, but it's worth watching to see if the furor translates into a more serious fracture.