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The Ohio legislature’s lame duck session that ended in the wee hours of December 9, 2016, while most of the Buckeye State slept, was a multi-front legislative attack on progressive interests: Two abortion bans, a “guns everywhere” bill, a prohibition on localities setting their own minimum wages, plus a freeze on renewable energy incentives. The bonanza of far-right bills demonstrated what “emboldened” Republican legislators will attempt with solid majorities in the state legislature, Republican John Kasich in the governor’s mansion, and members of the GOP in the offices of secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, and state treasurer.
Welcome to the dawn of Republican government. The nation should pay close attention to Ohio. This Republican legislative slap-down wasn’t a sign that this prototypical swing state has swung right—even though many state lawmakers have. This extreme swing does not reflect the sentiments of a majority of residents. Ohio is not just “the Rust Belt” or an amalgam of angry voters who chose Trump after back-to-back Obama victories in the state. It’s very much a complex, ideologically mixed state. The extreme-right maneuvering in Columbus wasn’t a sign that Ohioans have all gone Tea Party—nor should it cause progressives elsewhere to see it as a state in Red Shift. It was a warning shot.
The changing terrain in Ohio’s political turf war is a result of gerrymandering so severe at the congressional level over the last two elections that Republicans have won 75 percent of seats with only 55 percent of the vote. In the recently concluded 2016 lame duck session, Republicans held over 60 percent of state House seats and nearly 70 percent of the state Senate; now Republicans have a two-thirds majority in the House and 73 percent in the Senate.
Ohio legislators pushed forward with policies supported by conservative groups including Faith2Action, Ohio Right to Life, Buckeye Firearms Association, the National Rifle Association, and the corporate interests of state utilities and restaurant owners associations. To be sure, in a lame duck session, the body included some departing legislators who would not appear before voters again. But the bills passed are highly unlikely to be undone by a new legislature that has even more conservative lawmakers.
Ohio garnered national attention for a passing a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortions once an embryotic heartbeat could be detected (usually around six weeks). Far less attention was paid to the 20-week abortion ban that also passed, which does not include exceptions for rape or incest. The national press labeled Kasich a moderate after he eventually vetoed the heartbeat bill—effectively sidestepping a near certain loss in the courts, as legislation similar to the Ohio proposal had already been overturned in Arkansas and North Dakota.
State Representative Nickie Antonio speaks at a 2011 pro-choice rally.
Kasich did sign the second 20-week ban, but this was a strategic move, not a declaration of moderation. “In many respects, the heartbeat bill was a decoy that diverted attention from the very egregious 20-week ban that he ended up signing into law,” says Keary McCarthy, executive director of Innovation Ohio, a Columbus-based think tank.
“The 20-week ban was nationally designed to be the vehicle to end abortion in America,” Ohio Right to Life President Michael Gonidakis told The Columbus Dispatch. In another Dispatch interview, Gonidakis noted, “Our ultimate goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade and we feel the 20-week ban is the best [legal] strategy.” Kasich echoed this view: “I agree with Ohio Right to Life and other leading, pro-life advocates that Senate Bill 127 [the 20-week ban] is the best, most legally sound and sustainable approach to protecting the sanctity of human life,” he said.
Kasich is staunchly anti-abortion, and his aides previously helped draft legislation that has led to the shuttering of half of Ohio’s abortion clinics. It’s becoming typical for Ohio women (who can) to head out of state for abortions if they need them, since there is limited access to abortion at home.
The concealed-carry, “guns everywhere” bill will allow people to carry concealed, loaded guns into day-care centers, college campuses, libraries, city halls, and public areas of airports. Loaded guns in day-care centers? Think carefully about that. Kasich signed this bill, along with another that bans local governments from setting a local minimum wage or any local employer policies—from regulating the amount of notice an employer must give his or her employees concerning change in work schedules (an apparent response to Youngstown’s proposed “Part-Time Bill of Rights”), to family leave that differs from the statewide policies.
The Ohio legislature also passed a bill that would make renewable energy standards, including emissions targets, voluntary for utilities and other electricity suppliers through 2020. Kasich had previously voiced concerns about renewable energy companies leaving the state and taking jobs with them. When the bill did pass, Kasich threw in his lot with the business community and vetoed the measure, rather than side with large Ohio utilities such as FirstEnergy, that backed the legislation.
Kasich’s taking a stand in that fight has prompted a “sort of entrenched warfare between the legislative and executive branch over this issue,” says McCarthy. The veto certainly raised the ire of Republican legislators like State Senator William Seitz, who threatened to launch “a full-scale effort” to repeal the clean energy mandates, now with a veto-proof majority. The Cleveland Plain Dealer also reported that Seitz, in an email, wrote “Gov. Kasich cares more about appeasing his coastal elite friends in the renewable energy business than he does about the millions of Ohioans who decisively rejected this ideology when they voted for President-elect Trump.”
The Ohio capitol in Columbus
So, with Democrats far outnumbered in the legislative leadership, Ohio’s firewall against extreme-right Republican legislators now is a conservative Republican governor (and perhaps, the courts): By rejecting two of the most extreme pieces of legislation while signing off on the rest, Kasich managed to pick a fight with the Republican-controlled legislature even while holding the floodgates open for a bevy of extreme laws. The vetoes, and now the growing pushback from the most extreme right-wing legislators, makes Kasich (who, remember, just signed an abortion ban and a bill that allows concealed carry in day-care centers) seem reasonable and moderate.
Republican gerrymandering has facilitated the passage of extreme state laws, and not just in Ohio. Wisconsin’s state legislative districts were struck down in federal district court in November, deemed unconstitutionally gerrymandered because they favor Republicans so severely that it violated the “one person, one vote” principle and Democratic voters’ rights to fair representation.
“The only election that matters in most of these state legislative districts is the primary,” says McCarthy, who also served as minority chief of staff for the Ohio House. Whether districts are drawn to favor conservatives or liberals, says McCarthy, candidates will try to “out-conservative or out-liberal the other candidates” in their parties’ primary races, “and that is creating tremendous polarization, in not just our state legislature, but in Congress.”
“Partisan gerrymandering is the law of the land,” he adds. “It is also creating false majorities for Republicans.”
Commentators like David Daley have noted that through an effort dubbed REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project), the GOP invested heavily in state legislative elections and governor’s races after the 2008 election in order to control state and congressional redistricting in 2011, following the 2010 census.
The plan worked.
Power was redistributed among districts that shifted advantages to Republicans in local and national races. After new districts were drawn by GOP leaders, Ohio’s congressional map went from a pretty even red-and-blue split, with Democratic districts mostly to the east and Republican primarily to the west with mix-matched pockets of opposition on either side, to a map that’s almost entirely saturated in red, except for Columbus at the center of the state and a jiggly blue sliver that runs along Lake Erie and cuts down through Akron and Youngstown.
In 2014, Ohio’s Sixth Congressional District, which spans hundreds of miles and borders three states, had the state’s tightest congressional race, which Republican Bill Johnson won with 60 percent of the vote—a rout in any typical election.
“We still have Ohio as a state that can be very purple, [and] can swing back and forth,” says Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive research and advocacy organization. “We have a very outsized Republican majority in the state legislature in both houses, and in our congressional delegation, and I just think that sooner or later that’s going to come back to bite people, because this isn't a state that really endorses a far-right set of policies.”
The extreme policies bubbling up from Ohio’s Republican statewide majority are previews of coming attractions from President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. Ohio’s “guns everywhere” bill alone should put the rest of the country on notice, because it presages the NRA’s campaign to nationalize concealed carry with the help of Republican majorities in Congress and an NRA-friendly Trump.
Already, U.S. Representative Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, has introduced the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017, a top NRA legislative priority, which would allow a person with a concealed-carry license to carry a gun in any other state. This would thereby allow people to get licensed in states with the weakest background check and training requirements, including permitless carry, and then carry a gun in states where those rules are more comprehensive. As The Trace put it, “New York authorities, for instance, may be forced to allow a tourist from Mississippi—one of the 10 states that now authorizes permitless carry—to be armed while walking down Broadway, with his Mississippi ID the only permission he needs.” The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would also override federal laws making schools gun-free zones, declaring that concealed-carry holders are not subject to the ban.
Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks in Cincinnati on August 25, 2016.
The GOP also aims to completely defund Planned Parenthood. Congressional Republicans launched an attempt to do just that in the 2015 budget bill that was ultimately vetoed by President Barack Obama. With Trump in the White House, it’s likely only a matter of time before Planned Parenthood loses its federal funding. Already in Ohio, there are only nine surgical abortion providers remaining, with the one in Dayton now also under threat of closure. If the Planned Parenthood in Cincinnati were forced to close, the city would become the largest metropolitan area in the country without an abortion provider. Just over the river from Ohio, in its first week in session, Kentucky’s legislature has passed and Governor Matt Bevin has signed into law another 20-week abortion ban that, like Ohio’s, does not include exceptions for rape or incest. Since the bill includes an emergency provision, it goes into effect immediately. On January 12, U.S. Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, introduced the first federal “heartbeat bill” to the U.S. House, working, according to reporting by Rewire, with the same Faith2Action leader behind Ohio’s heartbeat bill, Janet Porter.
On the environmental front, previous congressional efforts to slash EPA funding will now be matched with a president-elect who promised to slash climate change regulations and sever treaties designed to coordinate action on things like greenhouse gas emission reductions. Unlike Kasich’s evident commitment to preserve renewable energy jobs, President-elect Trump has called climate change a hoax. For good measure, he nominated Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier and fossil fuel–industry ally, to run the EPA.
The prospect of a President Donald Trump vetoing extreme legislation is even less likely than a veto from a career politician like Kasich. There will be a honeymoon period, much as there was when Kasich took office with both state legislative chambers under GOP control. Despite his many efforts to differentiate himself from Trump, Kasich does share certain personality quirks with the New Yorker. “They both are similar in the sense that they're very—how do I put it diplomatically—certain of their own viewpoint,” says McCarthy, who describes how the state legislature has grown weary of Kasich’s conviction that he is always right. “There's a brewing divide between the executive and legislative branches, even though they're all one party,” says McCarthy. “I can see a similar pattern playing out federally, given the strong personalities of the executives."
Yet Kasich is no Donald Trump, a fact demonstrated by the governor’s recent actions. Kasich, who was on the state board that redrew Ohio’s skewed state districts in 2011, took a stand earlier in January, asking for congressional district reform to be included in the state budget, arguing that gerrymandering has locked politicians and voters in partisan silos. Few, including Kasich, it seems, expect the state legislature to support such a move, but elevating this issue, plus his heartbeat bill veto, helps Kasich position himself as a moderate. Statewide good government groups are also currently developing language and gauging interest in a possible ballot measure to create a stronger bipartisan committee for congressional redistricting, according to Ann Henkener, redistricting specialist with League of Women Voters of Ohio.
Why would Kasich push for redistricting, now? “My view is that the governor still has an eye toward running for president again in 2020,” says McCarthy, noting Kasich’s recent vetoes still align with conservative priorities, but also “made him look reasonable.”
With Ohio’s legislature tacking hard right, by rejecting some of Republican lawmakers’ extreme legislation, Kasich has been able to differentiate himself from them. In Washington, it’s unknown whether Trump and Congress can find common ground or whether ultimately being perceived as a moderate will hold any kind of appeal for Trump.
After the presidential election, progressives went through a grieving process. Many people walked around shell-shocked, keeping tabs on a growing popular vote lead for Clinton against a decidedly red electoral map. Nothing seemed to match up. For the disappointed, Washington’s new powerbrokers do not seem to reflect the will of a majority of voters—again.
In Ohio and across the country, Americans may spend the next few years differentiating between these shades of red. What remains clear is that the difficult, necessary debate of a democracy requires that all voices be heard and that all sides have a chance to choose representatives that reflect their interests. Ohio’s extremist legislature is not an anomaly, but a case study in national dysfunction and a harbinger of difficulties to come.