Former Speaker of the House and Caveman Bill Batchelder


In The Epoch of Cavemen: The Conservative Movement and Ohio Legislative GOP

Part I: Conservatives Started A Revolution, Moderates Came To Power on Cavemen Issues.

By John Corrigan


(ATHENS) Cavemen started to appear in larger numbers on the Ohio political landscape in the 1980’s. No, not like the popular GIECO commercials, but true Neanderthals, who were true blue conservatives, so much so that their knuckles scraped the ground.  They advanced issues, challenged culture, threw bombs. And helped win elections for minority Republicans in the Ohio Legislature in 1980, 1984, and 1994.   

It is hard to believe, but candidates used to campaign on issues that the public cared about. They even campaigned on controversial issues called wedge issues, a wedge was placed between the voter and their traditional political leaning.  Yes, in a bygone era, issues mattered, and the candidates and political caucuses were idea machines, and a candidate could get outspent heavily and still win an election based on an idea in districts designed to elect the opposite political party.

Ohio University was the home of several key players in the Republican movement of the 1980’s and several of whom are still relevant today.  Professor Jim Tilling and students Neil S. Clark and Curt Steiner came to the state’s capital from OU.  Tilling was recruited to The Ohio Senate by Senate Minority Leader Paul Gillmor (R-Old Fort) and Assistant Minority Leader Thomas A. Van Meter (R-Ashland) in the late 1970’s.  

Air Force Lieutenant Paul E. Gillmor was elected to The Ohio Senate in 1966. Photograph courtesy of Ebay Seller, Historical

Together, this group of elected officials and staffers would employ a strategy that would propel minority Republicans into a majority during the Reagan landslide of 1980, only to lose it in 1982, and then come back in 1984, never looking behind a robust 33 year majority.

At the same time, Ohio’s House Republicans were at a low ebb and in need of an infusion of ideas, energy, cash, and some luck. After the Reagan Revolution, a Revolution that Ohio’s GOP did not fully embrace, a group of conservative minded House and Senate Members established a rump caucus, known as the “Caveman Caucus” of principled conservative members. The Cavemen strode both houses, but since Speaker Vern Riffe (D-New Boston), was such a powerful force, the cavemen became more prominent in the House due to the force of personality of the characters involved. They were also highly quotable and got the conservative message out in a time when Republicans had few effective spokesmen.

Conservatives remain an ideological minority in The Ohio Legislature, not uncommon to the entire conservative movement and donor base who are more worried about governing than governing conservatively.  But, the ideas that the Cavemen advanced remain popular wedge issues with the public and continue put Ohio’s Republicans on the path to success. This is one in a series of two as to how they did it.

The Senate Battles

Ohio Senate Democrats ran smart campaigns and won The Ohio Senate in the national Democratic Tsunami Watergate election of 1974 that brought to an end Republican control of the upper chamber with a decisive 21-12 majority during the 1975-76 General Assembly. Under the leadership of Akron’s Oliver Ocasek, the Senate Democrats would expand their majority, always reliant on national trend voting until after the 1978 elections saw Republicans make comebacks across the nation in reaction to the Carter Administration.

The amiable Gillmor was the first State Senator elected directly in Ohio’s 2nd Senate District as a result of the one man one vote ruling of the Ohio Supreme Court that allowed for competitive legislative districts and population voting, that replaced a guarantee of county representation in the Legislature. Elected in 1966, Gillmor was an Air Force junior officer, community banker and held a strong command of the issues. A skilled legislator, Gillmor became Ohio Senate Minority Leader during Ocasek’s reign, and vowed to bring about a GOP majority.

Ohio State Senate Minority Leader Paul Gillmor (R-Old Fort), President Ronald Reagan, and U.S. Rep. Delbert Latta (R-Bowling Green) campaign in 1984, the year Gillmor would lead the GOP to its 33 year run as the upper chamber’s majority party. Photograph courtesy of Toledo Blade.

He was joined by another veteran of the General Assembly, State Senator Stanley J. Aronoff (R-Wyoming) the attorney and prominent Cincinnati area prestigious fundraiser who was elected to the Ohio House in 1960 and was the first person to hold the newly created 8th Ohio Senate District in 1966.

He never made it to Congress, but Sen. Stanley J. Aronoff (R-Wyoming) capped off a distinguished 36 year with an 8 year stint as Senate President,

expanding the GOP’s majority. Photo Courtesy of private seller on Ebay.

Rounding out the minority leadership team was State Senator Tom Van Meter (R-Ashland), the upstart Vietnam veteran and infantry officer, elected as he was described during the 1972 race for the 19th District as a “young man in a hurry.” Van Meter brought conservative ideals and military strategy to the core of the minority Republican leadership of the late 1970’s.

As profiled in our Nasty Boys series, Van Meter was an innovator who complimented the political and fundraising savvy of Gillmor and Aronoff. It was Van Meter’s idea to create a caucus fundraising apparatus, an entire committee that was dedicated to helping elect an Ohio Senate Republican Majority. The concept had not been tried in Ohio, but the idea was to help first time candidates whose county Republican parties lacked the resources to help them get elect. County parties tended to focus on patronage related political races, and the legislative races were not considered priorities of the local parties. The Ohio Senate Republican Campaign Committee (RSCC) was born, an effective force to this very day that would forge a new era in Ohio politics.

RSCC was a novel idea. It had staff, recruited professionals and coordinated messaging of candidates in different parts of Ohio with similar messaging.  RSCC provided professional consulting, campaign management, comradery among candidates who came to Columbus to get to know each other, an important bond that would help in governance. RSCC would provide a coordinated direct mail campaign, and offer split time television ads to increase the frequency that two or more candidates’ message got out in similar media markets. RSCC was the political innovator that created these strategies that are now common.

RSCC was also a place where donations could be made by lobbying interests and business groups that would not tie them directly to an individual candidate.  This would be important for a political party running against a majority leadership who discouraged supporting the opposition in the most plain of terms.  Caucus fundraising was born, certainly not the way we know it today, but this innovation in the hands of leaders of the term limit era would empower leaders with more power and command of loyalty than envisioned in 1978.

Recruiting Cavemen

With strategic campaign recruitment left mainly to Van Meter, a more conservative group of candidates was recruited to The Ohio Senate by its campaign committee. These were not blue bloods or local elected officials whose turn it was to go to Columbus to look after party interests. These would be true believers in the cause, Reaganites, in a party dominated by Gerald Ford and Jim Rhodes moderates.  

They would become majority makers, and eventually, some would become Cavemen.  

Van Meter even issued an invitation to President Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned in advance of impeachment, as the 37th U.S. President, to speak at a fundraiser for RSCC.  Van Meter embraced Nixon, and Nixon traveled to Ohio in February of 1981 in his first political fundraising appearance since the 1972 election. It would mark the beginning of a slow rehabilitation of Nixon, and Ohio State head football coach Woody Hayes even introduced his old friend. Despite some personal misgivings, Gillmor and Aronoff supported the event, and it would be the most successful Ohio Senate Republican fundraiser of its day, raising $100,000 - unheard of at the time.

Ohio State Head Football Coach Wayne Woodrow Hayes, himself sacked in 1978, introduces former President Richard M. Nixon at an Ohio Senate Republican Fundraiser in 1981. Photograph courtesy of the Ohio State University Archives.

The controversy around the Nixon fundraiser was enormous, but Senate Republicans managed a hugely successful event and attracted publicity unseen in recent times. The Miami County Republican Party Chairman stated, “It’s like inviting your mistress to Thanksgiving Dinner with your family.”  Governor Rhodes and ORP Chairman Earle Barnes actively boycotted the event and encouraged others to do so, protestors showed up outside the Columbus Sheraton where the event was held. Nixon was forever grateful and helped both the Ohio Senate Republicans and Van Meter behind the scenes until his death in 1994.

In 1980, cavemen would make the difference in flipping several Democratic held seats Republican. Conservative City Councilman Gary C. Suhadolnik (R-Parma Heights), New Philadelphia furniture store owner Bill Ress, Beachwood men’s clothing store owner Ben Skall (not a caveman per se, but loyal Republican) helped make the difference, all candidates recruited and nurtured by Van Meter. The political environment was right as The Reagan landslide of 1980 helped bring out votes for Republican candidates and the “Reagan Democrats” turned on their historic party.

The candidates were disciplined in their messaging. They were expected to work hard, knock on doors, raise funds, and earn sign locations. All of this was closely monitored by their platoon leader, Van Meter.  Ohio Republican State Committeewoman Nancy Suhadolnik, Gary’s wife, wrote Van Meter a weekly letter, essentially a diary of the Suhadolnik campaign. Not only did she want the RSCC to know how hard the campaign was working, but when it came time to put money into the race, she wanted to earn it. The strategy worked.

The Senate GOP did its part by campaigning hard on wedge issues such as opposing court ordered school busing, being tough on crime, and socially conservative.  These issues cut across party lines to working class and union member Democratic households. Perhaps the first of the culture war campaigns, Democrats were painted as out of touch with working Ohioans, and Senate Democrats ran on their traditional themes of support for labor, education, and minority rights.  

Strategically, Republican Senators offered a budget amendment to not have the state pay for Court ordered School Bussing. Republicans, whose votes were not needed to pass the budget, voted for the amendment and majority Democrats voted against it.  Those who voted in the negative were on record as supporting taxpayer funded forced bussing in big cities like Dayton, Columbus, and Cleveland under desegregation orders by Federal Judges.  

This was not a popular position with working class voters who opposed bussing as a remedy and certainly did not want to pay for it. The brilliant tactic paid off with television and radio ads as well as direct mail literature that hit days before November 4, 1980.  Senators like Parma’s Jerome Stano, the popular bowling alley owner, went down to defeat on the weight of the issue and the strong campaign of his Republican opponent.

The GOP scored an 18-15 majority control, an exact flip of the 1978 election.

Suhadolnik won a district that possessed what is called a generic voter index of 75% Democratic voter behavior vs. 25% typical Republican voter behavior. Skall’s was slightly less Democratic, but not by much. Ress won in a district that has elected a Republican exactly twice since 1966, including current Senator Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction).

The scant majority would not last as the national trend against Reaganomics, it was called that before it started to work, saw Youngstown’s Harry Meshel work with Ocasek to overtake Gillmor’s Republicans for a 17-16 Democratic majority from 1983-84. Governor-Elect Richard F. Celeste (D-OH) funded high profile Democratic legislative candidates and aligned labor union support to deliver the Senate back into Democratic hands. Ocasek was sacked and Harry Meshel was elected to lead Senate Democrats.

1982 saw Van Meter run for Governor and come in third in a four way primary for the Republican nomination.  After the loss, he committed himself to working to retain the Senate majority.  Rifts, personal and ideological, started to tear apart the team of Gillmor-Van Meter-Aronoff, rifts that would eventually deny Van Meter a second stint in the Senate in 1986. He did arrange a brief brilliant political stroke with Gillmor after the defeat of 1982. Van Meter put together a deal with Democratic State Senator Morris Jackson (D-Cleveland) to lead the Senate as the first African-American leader of the body, with Republicans pledged to support him for a 17-16 GOP effective control.  The deal was hatched over the Summer of 1982, but fell apart due to heavy lobbying by United Pastors in Mission and Organized Labor in Cleveland after word of the deal leaked. Van Meter even arranged for a long vacation for Jackson to avoid the pressure, but it was not long enough. Meshel took the gavel in January of 1983 as Democrats once again reigned supreme in the upper chamber.

The Ideological Wars Within Ohio’s Republican Party

The Ohio Republican Party, and certainly most of its donors and lobbying interests were dominated by Jim Rhodes moderates, who had successfully defeated conservatism during battles from the 1950’s onward. “Movement” conservatives made a comeback with the Reagan election, and conservatives were elected to the Ohio House as well as Senate. They were never a majority of their caucuses, but they did drive much of the policy agenda that appealed to the public.

Conservatism was engaged, and in many respects still is, in a long ideological battle for the soul of the Republican Party.  Its roots are in traditional economic and social thought.  The perception that conservative economics helped the party lose power for 20 years after the stock market crash of 1929, Republicans adopted me-too liberalism as a counter to achieve power.

The New Deal still has a profound impact on the United States, and it was particularly pronounced in the coalitions that developed around its outset during the Administration of 4 term Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  FDR was able to bring together senior citizens, farmers, industrial workers, Southerners, African-Americans (who had prior voted Republican in deference to the party of Lincoln, and despite the Jim Crow Democratic controlled South), ethnic voters, Roman Catholic voters, and young people into the New Deal Coalition, that lasted as a successful election coalition until the election of 1980.

With me-too Republicanism failing in successive Presidential elections from 1932-1948, the Republican Party of General Dwight David Eisenhower was able to put together a non-threatening not as big government agenda. Due to the enormous popularity of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces to Europe, Ike stopped the partisan slide and de-emphasized issues that were ideological.

The modern day conservative movement received a big boost from writers like William F. Buckley of National Review magazine, and other intellectuals.  But elected officials like Ohio’s U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH) also promoted a more conservative agenda. In Ohio, Republicanism fared better than nationally during the New Deal, with voters electing the GOP’s John Bricker in 1938, blaming Governor Martin L. Davey and majority Democrats for the worsening Depression.

Republicans like Taft and Congressman John Ashbrook were the vanguards of conservatism, and they had an impact on The Ohio General Assembly.  Always a small group, in 1964, Democrats riding the LBJ wave, made gains in the Ohio House and Senate. Conservatives were relegated to back bench status in the Legislature, and conservative thought was believed to have inspired the Democratic Landslide of 1964, defeating GOP standard bearer Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).

A Californian named Ronald Reagan awoke a sleeping giant, and inspired conservatives to once again seek prominence in Ohio and across the nation. Conservative candidates recruited themselves for the call to action. California’s Proposition 13 had demonstrated that conservative values were popular if couched not in elite terms but as an appeal to working and middle class voters.  Government had grown disproportionately at the state level when Republicans helped Democratic Governor John J. Gilligan (D-OH) to institute an income tax. The budget of the State of Ohio in 1971 was $2 billion for the biennium. The recently concluded biennial budget is $71 billion, fueled by that income tax, a tax that Governor John R. Kasich (R-OH) had campaigned to eliminate in 2010.

The Reagan Revolution and Ohio Legislature

Rep. Robert E. Netzley (R-Laura) was elected to the Ohio House in 1960 and served until 2000. A leading conservative voice, Netzley was a leader of the Caveman Caucus. Photograph Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch.

The Age of Reagan brought conservatism back as a populist movement. With it came Cavemen, at first a derisive term, then one embraced by conservatives who boasted membership in a Caveman Caucus.  Conservatives had always played a role in Republican politics.  The State Senate of the 1970’s boasted of Senator Thomas A. Van Meter (R-Ashland), Senator Donald E. “Buz” Lukens (R-Middletown), Senator Paul R. Matia (R-Westlake), Senator Sam Speck (R-New Concord), Senator Mike DeWine (R-Cedarville) as core of conservatives who helped form a voting bloc on policy issues.

The House had a core of 10-15 conservatives during the 1970’s and ‘80’s, that would form the nucleus of the Caveman Caucus.  Legendary Miami County Republican Party Chairman Bob Netzley (R-Laura) was one of the more pugnacious of the Cavemen.  Representative Bill Batchelder (R-Medina), Representative Lynn Watchmann (R-Napoleon), Representative Jim Buchy (R-Greenville), Representative Thomas A. Van Meter (R-Ashland) from 1985-86 were part of the core group. Representative Dave Johnson (R-North Canton) was elected to leadership and not fully trusted as a Caveman, but held conservative principles.

Rep. William G. Batchelder (R-Medina) was elected to The House while still serving in the U.S. Army. He quickly became an intellectual leader of the Cavemen.  Photograph courtesy of The Akron Beacon Journal.

The Reagan years showed Republicans that conservatism could be cool and not to be afraid of its principles. Rhodes was never very conservative, often behind the scenes telling supporters “You need a Democrat to get elected every so often so that they can raise taxes, and we can come in and spend the money properly.”  He was beloved in Republican circles, but conservatism was not in his make up.

Cavemen advocated for positions that were popular at the time, but made moderate Republicans a tad squeamish. Workfare was a common theme, to make welfare recipients work in exchange for receiving benefits from the state. Reforming Ohio’s workers compensation system, thought to be overly generous and subject to fraud was another issue championed by Cavemen. The obligatory tax cut philosophy to spur the economy was advanced by Cavemen.  Conservative social policy emphasizing personal responsibility for choices made in life, such as abortion, was advanced.

Cultural issues like the aforementioned opposition to forced bussing as a remedy to historic racial discrimination was a popular theme of the 1976-86 Cavemen Agenda. Opposition to the advance of trade and public employee unionism was a hallmark of conservative thought of the time.

State Senator Donald E. “Buz” Lukens was a conservative stalwart of the 1970’s and considered himself an heir to the Taft-Ashbrook school of thought.

These Cavemen were not just thinkers, they worked as doers. Because they were in the minority of their own respective legislative caucuses, they worked hard to add amendments to bills that would put legislators of both parties on notice as to which side they stood. They ran candidates in primary elections as conservative alternatives. They worked to force change within Ohio’s Republican Party for increased representation.

They would also be known as “bomb throwers” lobbing in political bombs in and out of their own political party. They tended to view their own leadership with as much of a cynical eye as the opposition leaders.  They decided not to be team players, but free agents at times, willing to withhold support for GOP initiatives that were not sufficiently conservative in their view.

Of these types of legislators, President Ronald Reagan would say “Sometime, the right hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing!” While joking, it was an apt description of a rump caucus pursuing a different agenda.

The appeal of these issues had the effect of peeling away the former New Deal Coalition to a more reliably Republican candidate. Working class and middle class voters, as well as Catholic and ethnic nationality voters embraced these aspects of conservatism, making the GOP message appealing to large segments of suburban Ohio, to add to its traditional base in rural Ohio.

Appalachian voters, who supported the New Deal, now turned on the Democratic Party whose support of aspects of environmental protection had the impact of putting Ohio’s once vibrant energy sector out of business in coal, oil, and natural gas country. Paper mills that once littered the landscape became as rare as covered bridges. Structural unemployment in the mid-teens in dozens of rural counties provided a new voting advantage to the Republicans based on their energy independence platform.

Conservativism Not For Everyone

Movement Conservatism was not for everyone.  In the 1990’s, Earle Barnes’ successor as State GOP Kingpin, Bob Bennett, would famously discourage conservative thought on social issues and discontinued the biannual state GOP Platform Convention so that issues like abortion would not be brought up.  

The Ohio House and Senate Republican leaders were also uncomfortable with aspects of the conservative agenda.  After Van Meter’s departure, movement conservatives were eyed warily.  The Gillmor and then Aronoff leadership, with key staffers Jim Tilling and Neil Clark, always emphasized tax, budget, economic and educational issues, as well as good old fashioned law and order Republicanism. In the Dick Celeste era, it was competence, reversing Celeste’s tax policies, a 15% tax cut, and pledging to reform state procurement procedures that suffered abuse with no bid state contracts to big donors.

GOP strategist Neil S. Clark and Senate President Aronoff. Photograph Courtesy of Columbus Monthly Magazine.

Having gotten elected on conservative ideas in 1980, and then suffering losses on the economic issues of Reaganism in 1982, the Senate GOP was more selective in its approach to true conservatism.  Its leadership was boosted by its staff who felt that Republicans could live on some of the conservative values, but did not want the less popular aspects of conservatism that may be controversial, to crucify Ohio Republicans on a cross of purity.

Tilling and Clark ran a different ship, but one that would guide minority Republicans to almost permanent status in the Senate majority.

In our next installment, we finish this series with more Cavemen and their antics, how Gillmor, Tilling, and Clark retook the Senate in 1984, and how Cavemen continue to roam the Statehouse, thirty years after they first lit the fires that helped earn majority status for the Republicans, moderate, conservative and everything in between.