In November 2011, I published a New York Times op-ed entitled “How Obama Can Win Ohio Again.” Now, with my pundit credentials firmly established (sic), I am opining that Ohio Governor John Kasich will win reelection in 2014. This could play havoc with Democrats’ hopes for the 2016 Presidential election.
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are usually thought of as swing states that are gradually but decisively getting bluer. But the 2010 midterm elections were a watershed for Republican governorships in those states. Four right-wing Republicans came to power and immediately mounted formidable attacks on traditional Democratic supporters, including unions, blacks, and women. Major political struggles ensued in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, but with very different results. Following the 2012 Presidential election, where all four states went for Obama, those attacks continued, especially on issues of immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in 2011, rust belt Democrats counterattacked. Particularly important were mass mobilizations around collective bargaining changes and recall elections for state officials. While receiving most of the media attention, the Wisconsin actions did little but slow the state’s draconian labor law changes, though they did put Republican legislators on notice for the dangers of overreach. The same was true in Michigan, where changes occurred on a piecemeal legislative basis. The mobilization in Ohio was more successful, resulting in a stunning repeal of anti-union legislation, SB5. Since then, Governor John Kasich and Ohio Republican legislators have scaled back direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining.
This year, Republicans legislatures have once again gone on the offensive in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, while Kasich is playing a somewhat different game in Ohio. For example, after the 2012 Presidential election, Michigan Governor Richard Snyder extended the attack on organized labor and broke his promise not to enact a right-to-work law. Republican legislatures in all four states want to push their political advantage in hopes of turning at least two of these four rust belt states red in the 2016 elections. They are doing this by securing their base support on social issues such as abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage while continuing their attack on unions and voting rights.
Kasich has taken a more arms length approach than fellow governors on wedge issues and stayed away from anti-union legislation. Several conservative Ohio legislators have attempted to push right-to-work legislation, but taking a cue from Kasich, Republican legislators did not provide legislative support for the initiative, and it died in Committee. No doubt, the last thing that Ohio Republicans want in 2014 is a repeat of the 2011 mobilization that brought together labor and community groups and defeated SB5.
While attacks on labor have decreased, Kasich is touting Ohio’s improving economy. At the 2012 Republican Convention, where Obama’s economic policies were being trashed, Kasich gave a speech touting all the economic improvements, tax cuts, and job creation in Ohio and bragging that Ohio was a great place to do business. Party leaders didn’t much like the speech, but Kasich’s “enterprise” approach made sense. Ohio has seen a substantial but uneven economic recovery, in part due, ironically, to the continuing benefits of the stimulus package and auto bailout and the growth of the oil and natural gas industry. The result has been that Ohio’s economy grew faster than the national average, and since 2011 the unemployment rate has fallen below the national average.
Even though that economic growth has primarily benefited whites, and minorities continue to lag in the current economic recovery, Kasich might have race on his side in 2014. In Ohio and elsewhere, Republican have pinned their 2014 election hopes on attracting white working-class voters who didn’t participate in the 2012 Presidential elections. Washington Post exit polls showed that about half of Ohio voters fall into this category, and 42% voted for the President. Nationally, only 36% of white working-class voters supported Obama. If Obama brought black and Latino voters to the polls in 2012, Republicans like Kasich hope that they can prevail in 2014 because minority voters won’t show up. Obama won’t be on the ticket, Ohio urban centers are being depopulated, and the Supreme Court has largely gutted the Voting Rights Act. All of that could depress minority turnout, making the white working-class vote statistically more important to Ohio Republicans.
Overall, Kasich’s strategy of avoiding major mobilizing issues and following traditional Republican fiscal conservatism has resulted dramatic increase in his approval ratings. So solid does Kasich appear that some potentially strong Democratic candidates, such as Richard Cordray, former governor Ted Strickland, and Representative Tim Ryan, have decided not to run against him. The Ohio Democratic Party has been left with a weak gubernatorial candidate, Ed Fitzgerald, a one-term Cuyahoga County Commissioner who some see as a position jumper. To make matters worse, the ODP is being led by the same apparatchiks whom many blame for the 2010 Republican sweep. That, in turn, led to redistricting that will make it impossible for Ohio Democrats to gain control the legislature in this decade.
So what could go wrong for Kasich? He must keep the most conservative elements of his party under control. Already this year, conservatives nationally and in Ohio have pushed laws that attack poor whites, seniors, and women. Cuts to food stamps and Medicaid primarily hurt whites, for example. In Ohio, 65% of households receiving food stamps and 61% of those on Medicaid are white. Also, despite widespread public support for same-sex marriage and less restrictive abortion policy, new Ohio Republican legislation dramatically restricts abortions. Republicans are also fending off challenges to Ohio’s Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Changes in voter registration, which would primarily affect minorities and seniors, could work against Kasich by sparking another round of organizing and resistance. Finally, a political scandal like the one that dogged Ohio Republican candidates in 2006 could help Democrats campaign on a clean up government message. One may be brewing over the lack of transparency in Kasich’s privatization of Ohio’s job development agency.
Taken together, these conservative attacks, potential scandals, and union fears of right-to-work legislation following a successful reelection could make Kasich vulnerable to a broad mobilizing effort. But only if Ohio Democrats can develop a strong economic and legislative message and tap into Ohio’s organizing culture. Absent this, it seems likely that Kasich will win Ohio again. And if other rust belt governors follow suit and take a more moderate approach in the short term, this could mean problems for Democrats in 2014 and make the 2016 Presidential election much more competitive in these crucial states.