Republicans' attempt to remake party must include focus on Second Amendment
By Chad D. Baus
While the major media focus continues to be on the Obama administration's infancy, the choosy newsreader can also find a number of stories covering various aspects of the Republican party's attempts to "rebrand" itself in the wake of major losses at the ballot box, both in Ohio and nationally, over the past two election cycles.
As party leaders continue their soul-searching, they need to consider the reasons for which they lost their hold on what has historically been one of the most loyal voter segments - gun owners and hunters - and make plans to regain their trust.
I have no doubt that there are many Republican leaders who still fail to realize that gun owners count themselves among the many who have been let down in recent years. "We're the pro-gun party," they like to remind us every election cycle. So before we get to where we need to go, let us consider where we have been.
How the Republicans fared at the national level
Republicans controlled the United States Congress from 1994 through 2006, yet only two real national pro-gun legislative victories readily come to mind.
The first came in 2004, Congressional Republicans were successful in rejecting attempts to renew the failed 1994 ban on certain tactical rifles when it sunsetted. What sticks in the minds of many gun owners, however, is that a campaigning President Bush undercut members of his own party by promising to sign a renewal if the legislation managed reached his desk.
The second memorable victory for gun owners came in 2005, just one year before voters put Republicans in the minority, when Congress passed and President Bush signed a law to protect gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits.
Although not a legislative victory, party leaders seeking to provide proof of their hard work for gun owners would certainly mention the recent removal of a prohibition against concealed carry in our national parks, and might also point to President Bush's appointment of two of the Supreme Court Justices that ruled the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to keep and bear arms. But Bush's Justice Department actually argued against that position during oral arguments.
Other negatives from the Bush administration for the Second Amendment came in his post-9/11 restructuring of the Federal government, when the President put the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under the control of the Justice Department - where it is much more likely used as a weapon against law-abiding firearms retailers and gun owners, and the failure to implement a working armed pilots program.
The simple fact is that the Second Amendment movement did not see the types of improvements that one might have expected if an early-90's crystal ball had revealed that Republicans would rule Congress for twelve years, and the White House for six of the twelve. The best the Republican National Committee has to brag to gun owners about from all that time in power is that they played a pretty good game of defense.
How the Republicans faired at the state level in Ohio
Here in Ohio, the game of offense was played, but it was played in inches, rather than yards. Despite having controlled both branches of the General Assembly from 1994 through 2008 (and the Governor's mansion for all of that time, plus three years), it took more than 70% of that time to pass a concealed carry law - and that one of the most restrictive, difficult-to-follow laws of its kind in the nation.
State Republican leaders can point to improvements since then in the form of statewide preemption of local gun control laws, Castle Doctrine legislation, and the reform of the most egregious provisions of the original concealed carry law, but the truth is that in many cases, GOP caucus leadership, especially in the Senate, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to pass these improvements. At the end of their nearly two decades in power, the State of Ohio remains saddled with severely archaic firearms laws.
In those many years, pro-gun activists found themselves fighting more with Republicans (Bob Taft, Betty Montgomery, Mike DeWine and George Voinovich top the list) than with anyone in the Democratic party. And I will never forget the terse response that came down from the Communications Director of the Ohio Republican Party in 2004, when a voter complained about the poisoning of the concealed carry bill by then-Governor Bob Taft (R) and the Senate President Doug White (R):
That statement came to mind in early 2008, because although concealed carry was already law, it took pro-gun Democrat Ted Strickland to pull a decent version of Castle Doctrine through the General Assembly, where Republican leaders repeatedly tried to water it down. It came to mind again in December, when Senate Republican leaders nearly succeeded in sneaking a large concealed handgun license fee increase past gun owners on the final day of session, while at the same time shirking yet another opportunity to pass improvements to the state's firearms law.
Will the remade Republican party win back the gun vote?
There are several ongoing issues that are may provide early clues to what a reconstituted Republican party might look like in terms of support for the Second Amendment.
---> Election of Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair
The election for the next chair of the Republican National Committee will be at an RNC convention in Washington D.C. later this week. With reports of Senate Republicans being instructed at a January retreat to "moderate, to not be too extreme, to not be critical of the new administration, to remember the need for Northeastern Republican survival," this election is going to be an early sign of whether or not the Republican party is going to be able to right itself in the coming months and years.
The six candidates for the chairmanship made headlines earlier this month during a debate in Washington, when moderator Grover Norquist queried the group, "How many guns do you own?".
Buckeye Firearms Association supporters will certainly be familiar with the pro-gun credentials of one of the candidates (Ken Blackwell, a multiple-endorsee of this political action committee). Beyond that, however, while it is interesting to know that five of the six candidates are gun owners, that doesn't reveal how each of them will represent gun owners and the Second Amendment. After all, even Vice President Joe Biden, author of the now-defunct 1994 ban on certain tactical rifles, bragged about owning a gun during last year's Presidential campaign.
No matter who the new chairperson turns out to be, if they want to get the party back on track, one of their first priorities must be to understand and address the disenchantment of gun owners with the Republican party.
---> Ohio gets new Republican Party Chair, sees Retirement of Senator George Voinovich
The retirement of Senator George Voinovich is one of the most clear indications of coming improvement to the Republican party, at least on the state-level, that we have yet seen.
All of the available evidence (including the claims of former Ohio GOP chair Bob Bennett that "...he's running. I cannot imagine a scenario that he wouldn't run..." just 72 hours before he announced his retirement, and the campaign fundraising letter I received the day after he retired) points to the fact that George Voinovich did not want to retire, and yet he did just that.
The news was welcome to Ohio gun owners, since as Governor he was responsible for killing attempts to pass concealed carry legislation in the 1990's, and since upon being elected to the U.S. Senate he promptly voted to mandate background checks for private firearms transations at gun shows.
I claim no inside knowledge, but my political instincts lead me to believe that his decision is tied very directly to the other major change for Ohio Republicans this month - namely the new leadership of Kevin DeWine, who now chairs the Ohio Republican Party.
Following the unanimous vote by the 66-member Ohio Republican State Central & Executive Committee, DeWine told the committee he will work tirelessly to restore the Ohio Republican Party's political dominance.
"We must rebuild our party at every level, and only then can we restore the confidence of voters who once entrusted us," DeWine said. "Rather than discarding our platform, we need to embrace it. Rather than purging our ranks, we need to multiply them. Rather than simply rejecting the ideas of our opposition, we need to offer bold, visionary solutions of our own."
Clearly, the rebuilding DeWine (a multiple-time Buckeye Firearms Association endorsee) is committed to could not have occurred while trying to prop up Senator Voinovich's re-election bid, as voters would have no-doubt associated with the past two decades of Republican dominance in Ohio politics (nor could it come if DeWine's cousin, Mike, decides to attempt to regain a seat in the Senate by running to replace Voinovich).
Republican Congressman Rob Portman, a proven friend of gun owners, has already declared his candidacy for Voinovich's Senate seat. Other pro-gun names being floated as potential GOP candidates include State Auditor Mary Taylor, Congressman Steve LaTourette, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Among the potentials that should concern gun owners are former Congressman John Kasich and (as indicated above) former Senator Mike DeWine.
The Democrats also list some pro-gunners among their potential candidates, including Attorney General Richard Cordray, Congressman Tim Ryan and Congressman Zack Space. (No one is talking about Gov. Strickland, but then again, open Senate seats have historically proven quite enticing to even the most comfortable politicians.) Among the potentials that should concern gun owners are Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and former Ohio Senator Eric Fingerhut.
---> Ohio Republicans' search for a candidate to challenge Ted Strickland in 2010
The name being mentioned most by the media as a potential GOP challenger to pro-gun Democrat Governor Ted Strickland is former Congressman John Kasich.
Many Ohioans will more quickly recognize the likeable Kasich from his time as a commentator on the FOX News Channel than for his history as a Congressman, but not gun owners. Kasich voted for the 1994 ban on certain tactical rifles (better known as the Clinton Gun Ban), and has refused opportunities to recant, even after the ban was proven to have been a failure, and allowed to expire.
State Sen. Kevin Coughlin, a multiple-time endorsee of Buckeye Firearms Association, has already declared his plans to run, and other names being mentioned include former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (from my view, a rematch of the 2006 gubernatorial battle is unlikely, but the possibility has been discussed) and anti-gun former Senator Mike DeWine (yet again).
With a number of pro-gun Democrats among those being listed as potential Senate candidates, and with pro-gun Democrat Governor Ted Strickland likely to run for re-election, the Ohio Republican Party may have an uphill climb to convince gun owners that they deserve another chance at leadership so soon after the disappointing stretch we have just completed.
What Ohio Republicans can do NOW
Aside from taking care to promote only candidates with strong, pro-gun records at every level, Republicans should also move now to take advantage of the power they still wield as the Ohio Senate majority. Last year's lame duck session ended with Republican promises of a "pro-gun super bill" to be introduced in the Senate as a means of smoking out what they believe is the true anti-gun nature of the opposing party. I do not believe that is the correct approach.
Introducing pro-gun legislation that even they believe has no chance of passing, simply out of a desire to use it to club Democrats with, is simply not going to work. Pro-gun voters are smart people who pay attention, but it won't take even the most intelligent among them to note that Republicans waited to introduce a "pro-gun super bill" until they had lost control of the Ohio House, and the Governor's office.
If Republican leadership in the General Assembly hope to prove that they are truly ready to earn the pro-gun vote, they are going to have to be about results, rather than rhetoric. They should immediately invite representatives of Ohio's pro-gun organizations, and the NRA, to educate them on just how much reform is needed in Ohio's firearms laws. (Note: the Democrats have already asked for just such a meeting!) And they should be prepared to work with pro-gun Democrats on a bill that can pass, even if that means Democrat legislators and the Governor will share in the credit.
Going about it this way, we are still likely to wind up with the introduction of a "pro-gun super bill". But rather than a bill that is never intended to pass, it will instead be a bill that proves that, for the first time in many years, Republicans have learned to care more about the rights of gun owners than about politics and power.
And that, friends, would be a definite sign of a reconsituted Republican party.
Chad Baus is a Member of the Fulton County, OH Republican Central Committee and the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.