The GOP: Missing the primary issue

March 4, 2012

What happens in Ohio politics never stays in Ohio, and there are two story lines here on the eve of Super Tuesday.

There is, first, the Republican presidential primary fight. Rick Santorum has to win Ohio to keep his candidacy alive. A Mitt Romney triumph would, at last, turn him into the “inevitable” Republican nominee. The second narrative involves the struggle for a state that Republicans must take in November to have any chance of defeating President Obama.

The problem for Republicans is that the two story lines are not coming together.

Ideally, the arguments candidates make during key state primaries are also a case for why voters should back them come election time. This is what happened here — and also in states such as Indiana and North Carolina — during the epic fight for the Democratic presidential nomination between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Obama lost Ohio to Clinton, but the voters he needed against her in the white working class and middle class were the people he eventually had to get to beat John McCain. Obama’s heavy investment here, and the pivot Clinton’s challenge required him to make toward voters who were most resistant to him, paid off when Ohio backed Obama in the fall.

But this year, Romney is being forced to do precisely the opposite: He is directing most of his attention to the GOP’s conservative base, which would never, ever support for Obama. Santorum’s challenge is pushing Romney to tilt his argument toward ideological issues that appeal to the right and away from kitchen-table issues that move practically minded voters in places like Parma, a proud working-class bastion on the outskirts of Cleveland.

Kevin DeWine, Ohio’s Republican state chairman, knows what the right formula is. “The eventual nominee would do well to hone his economic message in the Ohio primary,” DeWine said in an interview. What DeWine is looking for is not a philosophical disquisition, but “a mainstream Chillicothe, Ohio, kind of conversation.” He is far too loyal a Republican to say so, but thus far the campaign seems to have been more about Santorum’s record on earmarks than about restoring middle-class living standards.

All this comes as a relief to Democrats who were on their heels less than two years ago. Republicans swept the state in 2010, electing John Kasich as governor over incumbent Ted Strickland. Substantial Democratic defections in these suburbs south of Cleveland were an important part of the story. “They’re blue-collar retirees and white working-class Democrats,” said Chris Redfern, the Democratic state chairman, “but Democrats who, if ignored, will dip their toe into the water of the alternative.”

A lot has happened since 2010. Kasich’s effort to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights led to last November’s referendum donnybrook over what was known as Issue 2. Responding to a massive mobilization by the unions, Ohioans repealed the law and delivered a sharp rebuke to Kasich. John Thomas, a former Parma city councilman who thinks of himself as a Reagan Democrat, said the battle reminded not only teachers and firefighters but also workers in Parma’s auto plants and the construction trades why they weren’t Republicans. Parma gave only about half of its votes to Strickland in 2010, a steep drop from four years earlier, but cast nearly two-thirds of its ballots against Issue 2.

The success of the auto bailout has also been vital to Obama’s political recovery in a state that is one of the country’s most important car manufacturing centers. Parma Mayor Tim DeGeeter, an up-and-coming 42-year-old former state legislator who took office in January, said the auto rescue should be central to the fall campaign.

“What President Obama needs to do is constantly remind the voters that because of the political risks he took, he saved GM.” Referring to rising employment at his city’s General Motors plant, DeGeeter added: “If it had been Mitt Romney or others in the GOP, that plant would be mothballed right now.”

Local Democrats also took heart in Obama’s rousing assault on Republican economics before the United Auto Workers union last week. Marty Vittardi, the Parma area’s clerk of courts and longtime party activist, pronounced it an antidote for Democratic frustration over the president’s “lack of aggressiveness” in his first two years. “He never showed that kind of fire,” Vittardi said. “Now, he has.”

November is a political lifetime away. Nonetheless, it would not be out of place to declare that the winner of this year’s Ohio Republican primary is — Barack Obama.

ejdionne@washpost.com

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