JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — Republicans on Friday settled a long-running intraparty feud, electing a veteran chairman to lead the party through the presidential election and naming the man he’s replacing to a national committee post.
Bob Bennett, the longest-serving chairman in the history of the Ohio GOP, won unanimous approval by the state central committee to replace Chairman Kevin DeWine. DeWine stepped down last week under pressure from allies of Republican Gov. John Kasich.
Both Bennett and DeWine emphasized that Republicans must put the party infighting behind them and focus on defeating Democratic President Barack Obama this fall.
“The people in this room are not your political enemies. The people in this room are not your political adversaries. The people in this room are not your political opponents,” DeWine said during parting remarks at a Columbus hotel. “Our political enemies, our adversaries, our opponents are the people who want to continue the policies of the president that you and I know deep down in our hearts are wrong for this country.”
Bennett touted the same message.
“Make no mistake about it. We are united,” he told the room after being elected by a unanimous voice vote. “Outsiders chatting about Republican unity in Ohio need not be concerned. President Barack Obama unites us, believe me.”
It was a necessary message to drive home after the months of bitter feuding between DeWine, chairman since 2009, and those backing his ouster. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.
Bennett is returning to the position he held from 1988 to 2009, when he picked DeWine to groom as his successor.
Committeeman Pat Flanagan praised DeWine’s winning record as chairman and nominated him to a national committee seat. Two Kasich supporters — former House Speaker JoAnn Davidson and Franklin County GOP Chairman Doug Preisse — rose in support before near-unanimous approval by the committee.
Davidson, Preisse and other Kasich allies helped recruit a slate of challengers to the committee that they believed would vote out DeWine.
Among newcomers to the panel were some unusually high-profile figures, including Betty Montgomery, a former Ohio attorney general and state auditor; David Goodman, a former state senator and Kasich’s commerce director; and Richard Finan, who spent years as president of the Ohio Senate.
Finan conceded he’s never even been to a central committee meeting before, despite his decades in Ohio politics.
He said he ran to prevent a more conservative candidate from winning the seat. That was the opposite sentiment expressed by conservative Rebecca Heimlich, who said she believed the new committee lineup brought a larger conservative contingent to the party.
Davidson, a longtime party official, said, “I think this is just a new committee with a lot of new members coming together and being united on the situation. It’s all of the above.”
Unspoken Friday was Kasich’s interest in controlling the party as the sitting governor. Kasich was elected in 2010 and is serving a four-year term. At least one central committee member has complained that Kasich’s allies threatened him to try to get him out of the race, a charge the governor’s spokesman has denied.
Besides the national committee slot, DeWine will remain on the state central committee and plans to continue raising money for the GOP as a member of the national party’s finance committee.
Bennett has said he intends to stay in the leadership post through the fall election and run again for the position in January. He said he would plan to prepare for the 2014 midterm elections while the party works to identify a permanent chairman.
Associated Press Writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.