Voters in the key battleground state of Ohio have an opportunity to deliver a verdict on President Obama’s landmark legislative accomplishment a year ahead of the 2012 election. Ohio’s chief election official confirmed last week that voters will get to decide whether they want Ohioans and Buckeye State employers to participate in the health care law Congress passed last year.
A group of Tea Party, limited-government and constitutional law activists spent over a year collecting signatures to get a health care amendment to the state’s constitution on the ballot this November. Earlier this month, they sent Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted 546,000 of them, and on Tuesday, the secretary confirmed 426,998 signatures; 386,000 were required.
The bill on the ballot would amend Ohio’s state constitution to block the federal government from requiring residents to carry health insurance, as the law Obama signed last year requires. Under the federal law, states are to set up their own health insurance markets. Ohio’s referendum measure, if passed, would make it illegal for state and local governments to regulate health insurance. That means that even if the federal health care law didn’t exist, Ohio couldn’t create its own state health care system, like the one in place in Massachusetts. Arizona, Oklahoma and Missouri voters have passed similar propositions.
When it comes to the individual mandate, however, the bill is largely symbolic. Federal law supersedes state law, and the courts are in the process of deciding the larger question of whether the government can require people to carry health insurance.
The symbolism, though, is important when it comes to 2012 politics. “Ohioans will send a very clear message to Washington that they don’t want politicians in D.C. controlling their health care decisions,” predicted Jeff Longsteth, campaign manager for Ohioans for Health Care Freedom, a group that helped collect the signatures.
That message will fall hard on President Obama, as health care reform has been perceived, for better or for worse, as his signature accomplishment, and Ohio has long been an election year bellwether for presidential candidates.
In 2008, Obama won the state by four points over John McCain. But voters in the state are unpredictable, and can’t be taken for granted by any candidate. For example, the state narrowly elected, and re-elected, Democrat Bill Clinton, swung for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and pivoted back to a Democrat three years ago after Obama’s campaign launched an extensive get-out-the-vote effort. Then Ohio turned red in the 2010 midterms, electing a Republican governor (John Kasich) and replacing five Democratic congressmen with Republicans.
Complicating Obama’s prospects in Ohio are the state’s high unemployment rate and voters’ sentiments about health care reform. The state’s unemployment rate was 8.8 percent in June, and a recentQuinnipiac University poll shows a large majority (67 percent) of Ohio voters oppose the individual mandate in the health care law (29 percent support it). The poll also shows that the majority of Ohio Republicans back the state ballot measure while the bulk of Democrats oppose it. But independents — a key voting block for any candidate in a swing state — support it, 49 percent to 44 percent. Overall, 48 percent of Ohio voters say they support the amendment while 45 percent oppose it.
Looking forward to the 2012 general election, the health care amendment, regardless of whether it passes, will be “an important issue for conservative Republicans, and they obviously will go into 2012 with this as a key issue for them,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. “But they aren’t going to vote Democratic anyway. So it’s this middle group of independents” that will make a difference.
Of course, just because voters say they support or oppose an idea doesn’t mean they will show up to vote on it. This measure will appear on the 2011 ballot and off-year election turnout is traditionally low. Longsteth’s and other groups will spend the next few months encouraging voters to go to the polls in November and educating them on the bill. (Also on the ballot is a measure to overturn the state’s collective bargaining law, which activists hope will encourage voter turnout.)
Progressives in the state, however, will certainly be just as active in mobilizing their voting bloc against the ballot measure. ProgressOhio pored over the signatures last week looking for discrepancies in an effort to challenge the secretary of state’s decision.
Conservatives’ efforts to block the federal health care law in Ohio appear to be stirring up progressives, whose enthusiasm for Obama had waned. Many felt the president’s health care plan didn’t go far enough, for example, and are frustrated by a perceived shift by the president to the center.
Now “they’re, in a way, giving Obama a life raft” by working to stop this opposition measure, said Cliff Schecter, president of the progressive public relations firm Liberatas. “These are the people that were excited about Obama last time.” Attacks from the right on health care “led to a resurgence” among progressives, he said. The president, though, can’t take them for granted either. “I think he should be worried about communicating with his base what his priorities are and . . . living up to more of the promises he made as candidate Obama,” Schecter said.
Meanwhile, state Republicans are also mobilizing their base on the health care amendment and insist that the measure, even if it doesn’t pass, will have national implications, as Ohio will be a major player in deciding who wins the White House. “This directly correlates with who is going to be on the ballot in 2012,” said Chris Maloney, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party. “Clearly this a referendum on ObamaCare.”
But Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts signed into law a state health care plan that has similarities to Obama’s, could also be on the general election ballot in 2012. The presidential candidate visited Ohio, which is not an early voting state, this week to speak about jobs and the economy and to rail against nationalized health care. He made a similar stump speech in another battleground state, Pennsylvania, last month. On the health care issue, Romney has repeatedly said that the plan he signed into law was specifically designed for Massachusetts and not the entire nation. It was the right plan for the state at the time, he often argues. And as president, Romney insists, he would move to repeal the national health care law.
He might have more defending to do on the issue in Ohio, however.
“He’s going to have to demonstrate to the Ohio constituency and the rest of America that his policies are radically different from what people are rejecting from Barack Obama,” said Rex Elsass, an Ohio-based Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the GOP campaigns. “He will have to explain what his vision is and how he is a contrast to Barack Obama. If he is not able to do that, he won’t be capable of winning.” Romney’s current defense, said Elsass, isn’t good enough, “and in the end, he is wrong. You’re going to see people of Ohio very clearly send a signal about that kind of thinking, and if that’s the way Romney thinks, he’s not going to fare very well in Ohio.”
The Ohio GOP, though, disagrees. “This is Ohio proactively taking the steps in addressing the health care challenges we face here and what’s good for the Buckeye State,” said Maloney. “I think that has been a lot of what we’ve seen Governor Romney communicate.”