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The Battleground

Over the past year, Ohio politics has been in upheaval. What does that mean for November?

Lodge 141 of the Fraternal Order of Police is housed, along with 446 jail cells, inside the Mahoning County Justice Center, a forbidding brick and steel hulk at the edge of the frayed downtown of Youngstown, Ohio. It’s a humble office, but its proprietors have embellished it with a number of rather pointed political decorations. There is a spoof of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Barack Obama poster, with the face of Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, in place of the president’s and the word “DOUCHE” written across the bottom instead of “HOPE.” There is a newspaper clip describing protests by police officers last year in Columbus, the state capital. And there is a quotation from Martin Luther King decrying “right-to-work” laws, which limit the power of unions.

The decorations commemorate a series of events that began early in 2011, when Kasich—having been swept to power in the Republican wave of 2010—pushed for a bill that would have severely curtailed the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, including police officers. Known as Senate Bill 5, or SB5, the measure passed the state legislature in March, but not before sparking angry protests from organized labor and its allies. By June, opponents of the bill had gathered enough signatures to force the issue onto a statewide ballot. And, on November 8, Ohio voters delivered a sharp rebuke to Kasich, overturning SB5 by a margin of 62 to 38 percent. Exit polls showed a majority of independents and even a sizable minority of Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. Overall, 313,000 more people voted against the bill than had voted for Kasich a year earlier.

Lodge 141’s president, Sergeant T.J. Assion, told me that he was leaving the memorabilia on the wall for a reason: The battle over the legislation had a lasting impact on him and many other members of the union who generally leaned Republican. “We keep it up there to remind ourselves,” said Assion, a Marine veteran. “I myself have been a registered Republican my entire life, but that changed this time.” By undermining public-employee collective-bargaining rights, the legislation “was going to strip away every single thing we hold dear,” he said. “You start saying, ‘Working men and women don’t have a voice at the table.’”

I offered the case for SB5: that the public sector had grown over-indulged and inefficient. This set Assion off. “To say it’s to increase our job productivity is ludicrous. There’s not one person in my department who said, ‘I want to start off as a sheriff’s deputy making eleven dollars an hour in one of the most dangerous cities in America, because that’s my path to being a millionaire.’ We don’t get into this to be rich.” Kasich’s party would pay this November, Assion said, not least because Mitt Romney had come out in favor of SB5. “Some of my members have flat-out said, ‘I will never again vote for someone who has an R next to their name because of what John Kasich did.’ I will not be voting for Mitt Romney, because he was with the Senate Bill Five people, congratulating them, and has the belief that America should be a right-to-work country. In my opinion, he has no respect for the working man, and, for that alone, I will not vote for him.”

Every four years, around this time, Americans begin reacquainting themselves with Ohio, the state that is once again poised to decide a close presidential race. (No Republican has managed to win the White House without it.) This year, it isn’t just the presidential election that makes Ohio worth watching: With a fiercely contested Senate seat up for grabs and a sharply redrawn congressional map, the state could go a long way toward determining which party has the upper hand on Capitol Hill, too.

But what makes Ohio especially intriguing in 2012 is that some Democrats believe the politics of the state have fundamentally changed since the last election cycle. For liberals, what took place in Ohio last fall was essentially a long-deferred dream come true. Democrats have spent decades lamenting the drift of white, working-class voters to the Republican column despite evidence that the GOP does not serve their economic interests. If, in the wake of the SB5 vote, those voters were to return to the Democratic fold, it would dramatically alter the state’s political landscape. And a number of Ohio Democrats think that’s exactly what is now happening. “We’ll have an opportunity in 2012 to have a conversation we weren’t able to have in 2008, largely because of the attack on collective bargaining,” says a top Obama campaign official in Ohio.

Not everyone, however, is quite so optimistic. And they have good reason to be skeptical. On the same day last November when 62 percent of voters stood up for collective bargaining, an even larger number—66 percent—backed a referendum item that was widely seen as a symbolic rebuke to Obamacare. “I’m not convinced that we permanently shifted the base or the foundation of politics of this state with what we did” on SB5, said Joe Rugola, the former head of the state AFL-CIO and now director of the state’s 37,000-member association of non-teaching school employees. He pointed to a recent internal union poll showing that some Republican members were already drifting back to their roots. “Will that memory” of 2011, he asked, “that particular set of experiences, hold and will it become a permanent part of people’s thinking?” In other words, just how much have the politics of this all-important state really changed?

IN A COUNTRY STALEMATED in its red-blue divide, Ohio is Flanders: Each successive surge plays out more starkly here than in any other state, leaving it a scorched and exhausted political turf. George W. Bush secured his reelection by turning out droves of rural and exurban Ohio voters; two years later, amid a nationwide Democratic wave, Ted Strickland, a minister from the state’s Appalachian southeast, became the first Democrat to win the governorship in 20 years, while the staunchly liberal Representative Sherrod Brown won promotion to the Senate. Democrats consolidated their gains two years later, picking up two congressional seats, claiming the state House of Representatives for the first time in 14 years, and winning the state for Barack Obama by a four-point margin after much speculation about how his race would influence the region’s white, working-class voters. It was a moment of triumph for Ohio Democrats: To mark its ascension in the home of McKinley, Taft, and Harding, the state Democratic Party even put out a glossy coffee-table book.

The Republican landslide of 2010 made a mockery of all that. Democrats across the country were routed, of course, but in few places was the devastation as total as in Ohio. Republicans reclaimed the state House, seized half of the Democrats’ ten congressional seats, and replaced Strickland with Kasich, a former congressman who managed to win despite a résumé that included several lucrative years at Lehman Brothers—just before the crash. That Strickland came as close as he did to hanging on—he lost by two points—only made matters worse. Among Democrats, there was all manner of second-guessing about things the various campaigns, the state party, the state’s unions, and the Obama network could have done better.

But then along came Senate Bill 5—and, once again, the political landscape of Ohio seemed to change overnight. The legislation was breathtakingly broad—even broader than a similar bill in Wisconsin that had garnered more national attention. Unlike the Wisconsin measure, the Ohio bill attacked the collective-bargaining rights of government employees without including an exemption for public-safety unions. Ohio’s approach was arguably more logical, since police officers and firefighters tend to receive the most generous public-employee benefits. But it was also politically brazen. It was far easier for opponents to defend men and women in uniform than, say, tenured teachers or government bureaucrats. “It had one of the most galvanizing results I’ve seen in forty years at any level,” says Harold Schaitberger, president of the national firefighters’ union, which is normally split evenly down partisan lines.

The backlash was immense. We Are Ohio, the coalition formed to fight the law, had 12,000 donors giving $250 or less and 7,000 volunteers circulating petitions that collected 1.3 million signatures—so many that the secretary of state called in a structural engineer to make sure the office floor would hold the weight. The state Democratic Party swelled to a staff of 100, much more than in a typical off year, and the backlash brought in so much financial support that the state party has been able to keep on many of these additional employees. “There was an emotional tide,” says Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, a Democrat. “It was the police officer, the firefighter, the teacher, all the people you look up to in a neighborhood, hold up as heroes, and the Republican administration in Ohio was kicking them in the teeth. The administration and the legislature just overreached beyond belief, beyond what anybody would have imagined—and it came back to bite them.”

Following its Election Day triumph, We Are Ohio remained in operation, and, while it must by law steer clear of electoral politics, it has more than 100,000 Facebook followers and an e-mail list of 450,000, which it has used to rally voters over other issues, such as a proposal to make Ohio a right-to-work state and a voter-suppression law that was passed last year. (Republicans recently rushed to repeal the voter-suppression law so that a referendum to overturn it wouldn’t provide another rallying cry this November.) Democrats have taken heart in other signs of a sustained movement, such as the ten or so teachers who are running for the legislature, and the police and fire unions’ rejection of a Republican offer of a bigger chunk of casino revenue, which had been crafted to split the labor coalition. A new round of deep cuts to local social-service budgets—as a result of the phasing out of a personal-property tax—has also served to keep some of the anti-SB5 protesters engaged. “It’s not, ‘Oh, that went on last year and it’s over’—there’s huge cuts to local government,” says Tim Ryan, who represents the Youngstown area in Congress and is considering challenging Kasich in 2014.

Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party apparatus, so disparaged in the wake of the 2010 elections, plainly senses the opportunity for redemption this fall. State Party Chairman Chris Redfern, who recently staved off a leadership challenge to win reelection, says that SB5 has “allowed us to have something in place now that Republicans just can’t match.” The party, he told me when I met him at Democratic headquarters in Columbus, could go “voter by voter, person by person” via “conversations through the screen door”—because “we know every single person who signed a Senate Bill Five petition.”

TO GET A BETTER SENSE of those conversations through the screen door, I spent two nights with canvassers for Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO that was founded nine years ago as a way to reach people who can’t join a union at their jobs—increasingly, the vast majority of workers—but are willing to be enlisted in the overall labor cause. The group, which has 150 paid organizers in 13 offices around the country, spends most of its time building membership rolls and mobilizing around local issues, but, come Labor Day in election years, it shifts into campaigning for favored candidates.

My first night out was in Hilliard, a newer, relatively upscale suburb northwest of Columbus. A thunderstorm was moving in as I set out with Elisheva Aneke, an earnest Atlanta native with a very forceful knock, and Isaac Heard, an affable Ohioan whose front-step routine often included a request for a cigarette. The overall pitch, drilled into the canvassers by rigorous trainings that I witnessed separately, was standardized: an introduction, a presentation of five issues listed on the canvassers’ iPads—health care, education, and so on—to see which the resident cared most about, a bit of improvised chatter about that issue, and then the hook, which Aneke gave like this: “Our solution is just to put pressure on those politicians to make sure they’re looking out for us and that they’re doing their jobs. ... So we’re asking people to join our citizens’ lobby as members of the organization so that, when our lobbyists go to the capital, they can say we have strength in numbers.” Signing up as a member was free, but canvassers added a forthright request for cash: “It takes money to fight money.”

I was struck by how resolute the pair remained despite setbacks—Aneke talked one software developer, a loyal Democrat, into a monthly donation only to discover she already belonged to the AFL-CIO and was therefore outside the group’s target audience; a man in an orange shirt was friendly but recoiled when he grasped the union connection. Heard coaxed Michele Zahel, who works in nuclear medicine, into scrounging up some money, and she reemerged with $6 in change. But, after Heard stepped away, Zahel told me that, despite being raised in a union family, she was now firmly opposed to organized labor and voted Republican. “I feel they try to control too much with the union power they have,” she said. She was especially upset about teachers’ unions. “They’re not paying anything for health care, they get great benefits, they get summer vacation off,” she said. “It’s just not right.”

The next night out was in a much different area—Clintonville, a working-class neighborhood of tiny Cape Cod houses that, despite being within city limits, has a slightly rural feel, with grasses growing tall at the fringes and dogs in abundance. I was out with Theresa Bruskin, a brassy 24-year-old from New Jersey who attended Kent State and started out in journalism before realizing “that I was interviewing people who were doing what I wanted to be doing.” Bruskin was more explicit than Aneke and Heard in invoking the battle with Kasich. “Our strategy is strength in numbers. It’s how we won on Senate Bill Five in the fall, people like you and me fighting for working people,” she told a home health aide still in her floral medical smock, who agreed to sign up but declined to give money. Between houses, I asked Bruskin why she chose this approach. “I talk about SB Five in almost every rap—unless I’ve got some indication that it won’t be effective,” she said. “The Tea Party governors did us a big favor by allowing us to create this big coalition—but it’s up to us to keep it going. We can’t take it for granted.”

Bruskin’s resolve was frequently tested, however. At one home, she spoke with Clarice Grinstead, who works in a group home and was wearing a pink Tinkerbell t-shirt. She signed up and said she might even be willing to chip in after her next payday. (Bruskin tried in vain to get a postdated check.) But, when I asked Grinstead about the election, she scowled. She had voted for Obama in 2008 but was leaning toward “Mitt Romey” this time. Obama “is not doing anything. He’s making people get health care when they can’t afford it.” Next door, we were greeted by David Schnepf, 49, sitting at the front door in his wheelchair as a dog and several cats lolled about. He, too, signed up, but he couldn’t give any money—he had no ready cash and said he had gotten “in trouble with checks.” Moreover, despite his good humor, he was not inclined to Bruskin’s message. As much as he depended on the federal safety net, he said, he agreed with Republicans that entitlements needed to be reined in. “I believe that Medicare and Social Security, even though I get it, have gotten too big. I believe government itself has really gotten off track. I watch the news a lot, ... and they’re not doing nothing in Washington.” He, too, was planning on voting for Romney.

At the next house, a slightly chaotic scene swirled around James Tichenor, a 50-year-old who works at a local McDonald’s. A van missing a wheel sat jacked up on the driveway; an armchair lay on its side in front of the house; a 16-month-old boy, the son of Tichenor’s deceased niece, cried inside the house. Bruskin forged ahead, taking it in stride when Tichenor said he had no e-mail address (“I don’t know nothing about computers”) and that he could not give any money (“Right now, I’m pretty well busted”). He told me he wasn’t sure who he was voting for. I asked: Wouldn’t Obama’s health care law help him? He shook his head, saying he couldn’t afford the $51 per week bare-bones health plan offered by McDonald’s. I told him I was pretty sure that, if his employer didn’t offer decent, affordable coverage, he would qualify for Medicaid, which Obamacare will greatly expand. He said he’d never heard anything about that: He worked nights and didn’t watch the news.

Walking away, Bruskin reflected on the challenge. “With people like him, who tend to be ideologically on our side, but are frustrated, and work too hard, and are too tired to focus on the issues, it’s not really going to be about convincing them to vote for Obama,” she said. “It’s getting them to realize it’s Congress’s fault and not his.” Indeed, over my two evenings of canvassing—during which I met about a dozen different voters—what struck me most was the depths of the misinformation or resignation that needed to be bridged in order to turn opposition to SB5, as well as more general economic concerns, into solid Democratic votes. John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, says there are understandable reasons why this is the case. After helping elect Bill Clinton, working-class Ohioans watched as he passed NAFTA and welfare reform. “People start saying, ‘What’s the difference if you vote Republican or Democrat, they’re all the same,’” Russo explains. By 2008, Ohioans were ready to give Democrats a chance again—so “they suspend disbelief and vote for Obama, and, within two years, Obama doesn’t deliver and people say, ‘Bullshit, I’m staying home,’” he says. “You’re caught between this sort of politics where you just don’t believe there’s any difference—when there is.”

THE CANVASSERS’ supplications for loose change and postdated checks from people who were in little position to give was particularly striking in light of the larger-scale resources that are being marshaled on the other side. Liberated by the Citizens United ruling, conservative groups are bombarding the state with ads. Their primary target so far is Sherrod Brown: Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Karl Rove, have already spent a combined $5 million, Brown campaign officials say, far more than against any other Democratic Senate candidate. Brown’s opponent is Josh Mandel, who served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps Reserves and has been gunning for Brown’s seat pretty much since winning election as state treasurer in 2010. Despite his exceedingly boyish looks, Mandel has made clear he can play tough: In the treasurer’s race, he ran an ad accusing the African American incumbent of publicizing a job opening only at his deputy’s mosque.

Curious to see how Brown was making his case to the state’s voters, I went to see him speak at Ohio State University. The occasion was an event promoting Democratic legislation that would keep student-loan interest rates low. He chatted with a couple of young women at the front table, inquiring about their studies with a slouchy ease rare in Washington politicians—an affect enhanced by his raspy voice, mussed hair, and impish bearing. Then he went to the front of the room and gave his party’s pitch on student loans. But it was only once he opened the floor to questions that he cut loose—in response to a query about the reduction in taxpayer support for higher education. “For the last thirty years ... there’s been, in really all your lifetimes, this view that government should do less, not more, that government shouldn’t be involved in a whole host of things that government was more involved in. And, as a result, there’s been a real emphasis on tax cuts that go overwhelmingly to the richest people in the country,” Brown said. “We’re seeing the rich get richer in this country, we’re seeing more organized interest groups with more and more money, we’re seeing a dominance in Congress of oil interests and insurance interests and drug company interests, and the whole idea of tax cuts over and over and over for the wealthiest people. The wealthiest people are not carrying their load and, as a result, we’ve underfunded what I think is public infrastructure. To me that means highways, bridges, broadband, community colleges, state universities—things that Congress and state governments put huge amounts of money [toward] in the past, we’re not doing now.”

Afterward, I asked Brown about Senate Bill 5 and how he was going to get voters to make the connection between last year’s events and this year’s election. “It’s kind of the key,” he said. “People tasted success. They saw they could take on huge moneyed forces—huge, moneyed interests—and actually win.” But how to hold onto swing voters who came around against SB5? “It’s all about who’s on your side, and we will remind voters repeatedly that Romney and Mandel want to take away your bargaining rights. But it shows something larger. It shows a disregard for the middle class, and the voters increasingly understand, with Citizens United, that the big money coming in on the other side is all about that, that it’s about their assault on the middle class and the continued assault that the governor and legislature did on collective bargaining is still here in a different form.” But can’t that money nonetheless swamp him? He shrugged. “Well, I’ve always thought, if you have enough, it doesn’t matter what the other side has,” he said. “Although that’s being tested.” Indeed it is: Brown’s lead, which was a formidable 15 points at the start of this year, has already shrunk to six points in the wake of the advertising barrage by outside groups.

Brown’s race isn’t the only one in Ohio drawing attention from deep-pocketed interests. Last year’s congressional redistricting—presided over by Republicans who had won control of the state House in 2010—set up a highly competitive race in northeast Ohio’s 16th district. Democrat John Boccieri, an Air Force veteran, won the seat in 2008—and proceeded to stick with his party on tough votes like the health care law and cap and trade. In 2010, he lost to Jim Renacci, a wealthy businessman with interests in nursing homes, car and motorcycle dealerships, and an Arena Football League team. (Renacci had been assessed $1.4 million in unpaid taxes, fees, and interest in 2006, had settled a lawsuit involving an alleged wrongful death at a nursing home, and had been sued for unpaid wages at his medical billing firm.)

Thanks to the redistricting, Renacci will face off this November against Betty Sutton, a sitting congresswoman who entered the House in 2006. Only one-fifth of the new district is Sutton’s old territory; 42 percent is Renacci’s. Amid its meandering across northeast Ohio, two features stand out: The district excludes Sutton’s hometown of Barberton, where she began her political career on the city council; and it does a blatant jag to include the Canton-area facilities of the Timken Company, a big steel manufacturer whose employees have given generously to Republicans, including $68,500 to Renacci, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. After the redistricting, an Ohio watchdog group obtained, via a freedom of information request, an e-mail from a John Boehner aide to the Ohio officials drawing the lines. It had been sent the night before the boundaries were finalized, and it asked for a “small carve out” to get Timken’s headquarters into the district.

Like Brown, Sutton is counting on last fall’s fight over SB5 to give her momentum. Even in her new district, 56 percent of voters opposed the bill. “The reason why I think the momentum will carry is that people know I am an unrelenting voice for the working-class and middle-class families and fundamental fairness—and those are the issues that [SB5] was all about,” says Sutton, whose populism is delivered in a flat Midwestern accent. In 2010, she added, “the refrain from the other side was, ‘You don’t want a government on your back.’ Well, I agree. People don’t want a government on their back. But they want a government on their side, and that is not what they’re getting from these Republican extremists in the House. ... And we’re going to talk about that.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee has other ideas: It made Sutton the target of one of its first 2012 TV ads, which attacked her vote for Obamacare. Renacci’s biggest single source of support, however, has been Suarez Corporation Industries, a large direct-marketing company in North Canton that sells a motley mix of products (space heaters, collectible coins, jewelry, and more). Last year, The Toledo Blade noticed that many large contributions were being made to Renacci by Suarez’s non-executive employees. Seventeen employees, plus six spouses, had given to Renacci, Mandel, or both, with most giving at the maximum allowable level, for a total of $100,000 for each candidate. (Company founder Benjamin Suarez had himself given the maximum to both candidates.) This sort of pattern raises red flags: Federal law bars employers from reimbursing employees for giving to a certain candidate—a method employers could use to evade limits on their own giving.

To find out whether that had happened in this instance, I set off to ask the employees themselves. I first went to the home of Barbara Housos, listed in campaign records as an “accounting manager,” who last year gave both Renacci and Mandel the $5,000 maximum ($2,500 for the primary and again for the general election). Housos lives in northwest Canton, in a ranch house that the real estate site Zillow estimates is worth $128,000. When she came to the door, I asked her why she’d given so generously. “It’s personal,” she said. “I follow the news, that kind of thing.” Were the contributions of her free will? “Of course.” In a more upscale neighborhood not far away, I found Charles Stewart, the director of merchandising at Suarez, who had given Renacci only $250. He was setting out in his car with a woman whom I presumed to be his wife. I asked why so many Suarez employees were giving to the two candidates. “The owner of our company is very Republican,” he said. But, he added, “He doesn’t push the executives to give.” Then he said something that piqued my interest: “There was an investigation. I wasn’t involved in it, because I didn’t give the amount of money [others] gave.” The woman tugged on his arm, urging him to shut up. He apologized, saying he had to go and that his mind was a bit jet-lagged. “I just got back from the Orient,” he said.

On the other side of town, I learned what Stewart had been referring to. I visited the home of Michael Blubaugh, a copywriter at Suarez who had given $5,000 each to Renacci and Mandel last year—and whose wife, Donna, had done the same. They live in a modest subdivision, in a home valued by Zillow at about $142,000. When Donna came to the door, she said she had already been asked about the donations by the FBI. The inquiry had caught her by surprise, she said, “because I didn’t know about the rules, so I was like, ‘What?’” But she said the $20,000 had been given of her and her husband’s free wills. “Our house may not look it, because we’re saving for retirement, but my husband makes good money as a copywriter,” she said. But why give so much to the candidates? “My husband made the decision, not me,” she said.

The next day, I went to Suarez’s headquarters, where corporate counsel Mike Puterbaugh told me, “There really isn’t anyone here who would be able to address that.” A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Cleveland office told me, “We can’t comment on any case like that until it is finalized.” Renacci’s chief of staff, James Slepian, told me that investigators had asked Renacci’s treasurer for records. “To our knowledge, no donations made from any donors were made impurely,” he said. A spokesman for Mandel did not return requests for comment. Regardless of the outcome of any inquiry, Suarez Industries, like Timken, had made plain it wasn’t going to lie low in post-SB5 Ohio.

OF COURSE, the biggest factor—bigger than SB5 or Kasich’s popularity or corporate spending—in determining how Ohioans vote next fall will likely be the state of the economy. The momentum from SB5 “probably does not carry over” for most of the population, says Columbus’s Mayor Coleman. “This whole election in Ohio is going to come down to the economy. It’s the economy, the economy, the economy.”

Ohio has bounced back further than most other states. Unemployment has dropped to 7.5 percent from a high of 10.6 in late 2009, helped by the comeback of the auto industry—Ohio is second to Michigan in auto-related jobs—and by the shale-gas boom in eastern Ohio. This is making for some noticeable dissonance on the Republican side. At a recent event outside Columbus, Romney lamented the slow recovery on Obama’s watch, while Kasich touted Ohio’s comeback, going so far as to declare that there were 80,000 openings listed on a state website.

One of the positive signs Kasich has celebrated is a $225 million expansion at one of Timken’s Canton-area steel plants, which the company says is driven in part by the shale-gas boom (which demands pipes). The expansion won’t add many permanent jobs, if any, but the upgrade itself—a new forge press and caster—does mean a temporary uptick. I visited the huge plant, but couldn’t see much of the work, which is happening deep in its bowels. Later, I checked in with Dennis Brommer, head of the steelworkers’ union in the area, who said it was irksome to see Kasich taking credit for the manufacturing upsurge, especially given that so much of it—including the bump in steel manufacturing—was connected to the auto-industry comeback. “I don’t think he can lay claim to that,” he said. “Give credit where credit’s due.” Were his union’s members willing to reward Obama? “I’m not sure he gets enough credit for it. I think most of them do, they’re plugged in, but maybe not some others that aren’t,” he said. “I’m not sure the public at large appreciates what would have happened if the auto industry went down.”

On the economy, as on SB5, I came away from my time in Ohio with a sense that Democrats face both an enormous opportunity and a major challenge. On the one hand, the auto bailout and SB5 have clearly pulled some Ohio voters to the left. Moreover, Obama is running against someone who is not exactly a working-class icon. This helps explain why the president is up a couple of points in most Ohio polls, barely behind his 2008 finish. Yet I also came away thinking that Democrats were still struggling to solidify the link between specific issues and a larger political narrative—to make sure voters saw Kasich’s overreach last year as part of a broader agenda shared by Romney, Paul Ryan, and other Republicans; or to make sure that the auto-industry bailout, which saved Ohio’s economy, was seen as part of a larger need for activist government.

Indeed, when I went to the Mahoning County Jail to visit the Fraternal Order of Police office, I met an officer who reflected this disconnect—Major Mike Fonda. Though he’s now in management, he had voted against SB5, because he believes unions protect officers against “vindictive” superiors. But that doesn’t mean he’ll vote Democratic this fall. He doesn’t think that people without health insurance should “go to jail” (a common misconception about the new law), he doesn’t think Obama can rein in budget deficits, and he doesn’t see a link between SB5 and national Republicans. “It was more so Kasich who was the leader of that particular initiative,” he said.

On my last full day in the state, Obama came to Columbus for the official kickoff of his campaign. Some 14,000 flowed into the Ohio State arena—a good crowd for a sunny Saturday, but not enough to fill the rafters. Obama gave a rousing speech that harkened back to his 2008 themes, centered around the notion that “we built this country together,” not through winner-take-all selfishness. He made no direct mention of SB5, just a passing reference to Romney’s belief in maximizing profits through “union-busting” and an avowal that “we’re not going to roll back the bargaining rights that generations of workers fought for.”

After the speech, I asked a man sitting near me in the upper tier, a 55-year-old local banker named John Fisher, what he made of the it. He had liked the speech, though he said it wasn’t as exciting as seeing Obama in 2008. Fisher had voted against Senate Bill 5, and I asked him if he thought the revolt against Kasich last fall would carry into this election. He paused, then said, “The campaign’s going to have to make that connection.”

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.