Ohio's Tea Party Movement Tries to Find Its Place in Trump's GOP

Jul 10, 2016

Tom Zawistowski says the tea party is at a crossroads.
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU

Among those torn by the prospect of Donald Trump leading the GOP into the fall election are tea-party loyalists in Ohio. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke to one of the group’s leaders about the divisions and the tea party’s role in down-ticket races.

The tea party took shape as a fiscal and socially conservative force in Ohio in 2008. And by 2010, it was key in the Republican sweep of statewide offices. Tom Zawistowski heads the tea-party umbrella group called “We the People Convention.” He also was a delegate for Ted Cruz in this year’s GOP primary.

Gov. John Kasich won that primary, which means Zawistowski – like the delegates for Donald Trump – won’t be going to Cleveland next week in any official role. Instead, he says, his group is trying to figure out its next steps.

“This has been literally the most divisive time in the tea party’s eight-year history. We’re about split 50-50 Trump/Cruz people. And the way Mr. Trump treated Mr. Cruz, particularly at the end talking about his father in these insane ways, really caused a lot of hard feelings. And we’ve got a real job to do to try to bring everyone together and understand what’s in our best interests as a country.

Support for Donald Trump
Zawistowski maintains that support for Trump is “an inch deep,” grounded in resentment toward “a president who spent eight years telling you that you stink, that you have white privilege, that you are bigoted, that you hate immigrants, that you hate blacks, that you hate women, that you hate everything.

“None of that is true. So what you have is a bunch of people who are sick and tired of being insulted.”

He says Trump has answered with a campaign promise that resonates: “Make America Great Again,.”

“And you know what? That’s all we want.”

The deal
But Zawistowski acknowledges he personally has reservations.

“I’m a businessman for 30 years. I read his book, "The Art of the Deal.’ I put down his book and said, ‘I’d never do business with the guy. The art of the deal is to use other people’s money.’”

Libertarians and down ticket
Given the divisions, Zawistowski says, “For the first time in the eight years of the tea party, our path is not clear.” And that has some considering a third party, especially Libertarian. Zawistowski says the question of who to support hinges on “who can win.”

Many Republicans with reservations about Trump have doubled down on down-ticket races, supporting candidates like GOP incumbent Sen. Rob Portman. But Zawistowski says, “We are committed to making sure that Rob Portman loses … because Rob Portman lied to us.”

Specifically, Zawistowski says two things should cost Portman re-election. First, Portman reversed his position on gay marriage, a change Zawistowski says voters should have been forewarned he was considering. Second, in 2014, Portman backed a Republican establishment Senate candidate in Mississippi over a tea-party challenger, whom Zawistowski believes was a much better qualified candidate. Zawistowski says the tea party needs to send a warning to Portman and others.

Ohio's congressional maps give the GOP overwhelming control over purple-state Ohio.
Credit WIKIPEDIA

  As for the U.S. House, “one of our biggest problems in our country is redistricting. The reason that our government is so polarized is because of redistricting. In Ohio, you can’t challenge anybody. … These districts are so stacked with Republicans in 12 cases and with Democrats in four cases, that only a Democrat or Republican can win.”

He acknowledges that Ohio’s conservative Legislature has aligned with positions on issues ranging from abortion to gun control that many in the tea party support. But “the reality is that the only legislation that gets passed is one that comes with a check from a special interest person.”

Tom Zawistowski, a tea party leader in Ohio, says the group will focus on local and state issues, including tax reform, but likely will back Trump for president – though not uniformly. 

This story is part of WKSU and ideastream’s election collaborative.