Mitt Romney swept into Ohio Tuesday to talk about how much he agrees with Republican Governor John Kasich’s aggressive approach to budget issues. He even visited a call center where Republicans were trying to stir up support for Kasich’s signature initiative: a sweeping assault on labor rights so controversial that it faces a “citizen veto” in a November 8 statewide vote.
But, with new polling showing that Ohioans are overwhelmingly opposed to Kasich’s law (a fresh Quinnipiac University poll has voters favoring the repeal of the anti-labor law by a 57–32 margin), Romney blurred the message. Instead of the expected encourargement of a “yes” vote to keep the law on the votes, Romney praised Kasicg and then waffled on the referendum—saying he’s leave the issue up to the voters. It was a messy moment in a messy campaign.
So what the heck was Romney doing in Ohio? Why was the Republican presidential contender veering off his own campaign trail to spend time in a state that won’t hold its presidential primary until June of 2012? And why was he struggling to play all sides of the labor fight?
What’s happening in Ohio this fall is about more than Ohio.
The vote on Kasich’s anti-labor law—which was scheduled after 1.3 million Ohioans signed petitions supporting a repeal effort—is a key contest in the “Karl Rove” primary. Rove has not endorsed a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But he’s pretty obviously leaning toward Romney—just ask the recently affronted Herman Cain. Romney wants to be where Rove says to go; he also wants Kasich’s endorsement, as part of a strategy that seeks to reprise the game plan Rove constructed for George W. Bush in 2000, which counted on the backing of Republican governors to help secure the GOP nod.
Rove has for months been indicating that Republicans had better put Ohio on their schedules this fall if they want support next fall.
Since March, when Governor Kasich and his legislative allies moved to strip away the collective-bargaining rights of Ohio’s state, county and municipal employees, as well as teachers—and to render their unions politically dysfunctional—Rove has led the cheering section.
The former White House political czar, who promises he that groups he controls will spend $250 million nationally in the upcoming election cycle, has:
§ set up a Government Union Reform Action Center to coordinate anti-labor work in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin
§ written columns for the Wall Street Journal about the Ohio and Wisconsin fights
§ appeared frequently on Fox News to talk up the importance of what Kasich—an old political ally—has done
§ launched a cable advertising campaign attacking the unions that have fought Kasich and the Democrats who have aligned with them
§ made Ohio a regular stop on his speaking and political consulting schedule, visiting as recently as late September.
Why the fascination?
Rove has always been obsessed with breaking up and breaking down public-employee unions. On the list of the issues that his heavily funded group Crossroads GPS ranks as top priorities, the highest-ranking specific fight is against organized labor in the states. “It’s time,” declares the message from Rove’s Government Union Reform Action Center, “government stood up for American taxpayers, not the unionized bureaucrat elite.”