COLUMBUS -- Lawyers sparred Tuesday in Ohio over whether a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate was qualified for the May ballot, a dispute whose outcome could affect Republican Gov. John Kasich's re-election bid.
Libertarian Charlie Earl has the potential to draw votes from Kasich as the governor faces a likely challenge from Democrat Ed FitzGerald this fall.
Kasich has been criticized by tea party activists and other conservatives within the GOP for some of his policy decisions, including backing Medicaid expansion and drilling tax increases.
Recent polls place Kasich ahead of FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive in Cleveland. But the governor's race in this closely-divided battleground state has a chance of being tight. The case seeking to disqualify Earl from the primary ballot was brought on behalf of Tyler King, a Libertarian Ohio voter.
King's lawyer, Columbus attorney John Zeiger, argued Tuesday before hearing officer Bradley Smith that Earl should be disqualified. He asserted that Democrats circulated Earl's petitions and provided monetary and legal help to the effort. Ohio law required petition circulators for Earl to be members of the Libertarian Party, Zeiger argued.
Capital University law professor Mark Brown, representing Earl, called the challenge an extension of Republican efforts to exclude third parties from Ohio's ballot. He said petition circulators for Earl were legally qualified by Secretary of State Jon Husted, and he accused Zeiger of "bluster and innuendo."
Brown brought a successful federal legal challenge to the constitutionality of new ballot access rules passed by the Ohio Legislature and signed by Kasich in November. Representatives of third parties including the Libertarians, Green Party and others argued in the lawsuit that the law would have effectively eliminated all minor party candidates from May's primary ballots.
The law set a vote threshold none had met. Smith, also a law professor at Capital, was appointed by Husted, a Republican, to resolve the dispute. A decision must be made by Friday in order to meet Ohio's ballot production deadlines.