Health Care Vote Highlights Obama's Challenge in Ohio

Health Care Vote Highlights Obama's Challenge in Ohio

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 1, 2011

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 recent Quinnipiac 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.)

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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