The Coming Battle

Can you name the two Midwestern states where the 2012 election battle may be fought the hardest?

Two states crazy about Big Ten sports.

Two states that in 2010 saw big gains by the GOP and where the statehouses are ruled by Republicans.

Two states with new governors who say “open for business” a lot.

Two states with manufacturing-based economies — dare we say “Rust Belt”? — that have had to deal with a depressed auto industry and related suppliers.

One, you have already guessed: Wisconsin.

The other: Ohio, home of the Big Ten Buckeyes, two NFL teams, the litigious Dennis Kucinich and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Wisconsin and Ohio are almost certain to be kingmakers in the 2012 presidential election.

In the 16 presidential elections since 1948, Ohio has only picked one loser — Richard Nixon in 1960 (John Kennedy won). Wisconsin has picked winners in all but three races — 1988, 2000 and 2004.

Both Wisconsin and Ohio went for President Obama in 2008, and to win re-election Obama will need their electoral votes — 10 in Wisconsin and 20 in Ohio.

Senatorial elections raise the stakes even higher for Wisconsin and Ohio. Both states have Democratic incumbents going before the voters in 2012. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin’s four-term moderate incumbent, is on the watch list after conservative newcomer Ron Johnson ousted Russ Feingold in 2010. (Mark Neumann, the former 1st District congressman who lost to Feingold in 1998 and then lost to Scott Walker in the GOP gubernatorial primary of 2010, is showing signs of a possible challenge to the millionaire Milwaukee Bucks owner.)

Political pundits already are rating Ohio’s Sherrod Brown as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Could a conservative Tea Party type like Johnson emerge to bump off another top progressive?

It’s yet another worry for Democrats in Ohio and Wisconsin, not to mention in Washington, D.C.

For evidence, just look at the president’s frequent-flyer miles. Obama has been to Wisconsin seven times since becoming president, including a post-State of the Union visit to Manitowoc and the swing Fox Valley media market.

And Obama’s double-digit visits to Ohio caused a New York Times political reporter to write in October: “The most politically important state in America, at least in the eyes of the White House, is Ohio. President Obama arrives this weekend for one last rally of the campaign season, his 12th visit since taking office and his second in only two weeks.”

Conclusion from the political pros: Obama doesn’t win in 2012 without the Midwest, and upper Midwest voters don’t come back without an improving economy.
The economy is a big one for all concerned.

Like Wisconsin’s, Ohio’s economy has been struggling. Despite the best efforts of entrepreneurs and purveyors of the new economy, manufacturing remains the core of Ohio’s economy.

As of December, the Ohio unemployment rate (9.6%) was about the same as the U.S. rate (9.4%). Wisconsin’s rate was 7.5%.

Reports indicate the loss of 419,000 jobs in Ohio since the official start of the recession at the end of 2007. Jobs are coming back, but slowly, with reports suggesting 150,000 added jobs over the next two years.

But you only have to visit places like eastern Ohio’s Youngstown to see the devastation wrought by years and years of Rust Belt decline. Janesville, once home to GM, looks and feels like a robust place in comparison.

But that’s faint comfort. As of December, Wisconsin had 154,500 fewer jobs than it did three years earlier, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. High-paying construction and manufacturing jobs have been particularly hard hit.

Voter unhappiness with the economy contributed heavily to Republican sweeps in both states. Newly elected governors — Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio — are promising to shake things up.

Their states are among six states — five in the Big Ten conference — where the GOP rules the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, thanks to those 2010 election results. (The others are Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine.)

Republicans in these statehouses have a lot of power to reverse what Democrats did in the 2008-10 elections and to enact an agenda they claim will make their economies the envy of the nation.

But if the 2008 and 2010 elections proved anything, it was the volatility of voters in these key states, including Ohio and Wisconsin. Experts say the lousy economy had voters wanting change.

Will a recovering economy — albeit a slowly recovering one — give these independent-minded voters enough incentive to come back Obama’s way? Early 2011 polling suggests a lot of those folks are coming back to Obama.

“It’s really going to depend on who he runs against,” says Matt Mayer, president of the conservative Buckeye Institute, when asked whether he sees an Obama rebound similar to President Bill Clinton’s post-1994 revival. “We don’t need another geriatric candidate.” Mayer was referring to Bob Dole (the 1996 loser) and John McCain (the 2008 loser).

But which of the Republican hopefuls has the key to winning the Midwest? It will be a question tested in the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, another state where a Republican replaced a Democrat in the governor’s office.

NBC’s political team, writing in its daily “First Read” on Jan. 26, reinforced the importance of the Midwest in 2012:

“In the new NBC/WSJ poll, Obama’s approval rating in the Midwest is 56%, up 13 points [!!!] since December. Put simply, 2012 will be all about the Midwest. It’s why the president is in Wisconsin today. It’s why Vice President Biden is in Indiana.... There was no region of the country that was more important to Obama’s success in ’08 (both in the primaries and general) — and no other region where Dems took a bigger shellacking in 2010 — than the Midwest.”

Meanwhile, Reince Priebus, the new Republican National Committee chair, and Wisconsin’s GOP leader during the lows of 2008 and the highs of 2010, feels his new job should be a “net positive” for Wisconsin Republicans. But he told in late January the state would likely have been in the political crosshairs regardless.

Noting Obama’s post-State of the Union visit, he said: “Barack Obama’s map just doesn’t add up without Wisconsin.”

Priebus said winning the Badger State for the GOP presidential nominee next year is “mandatory” — easier said than done considering that Wisconsin Republicans haven’t won the state for their nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1984. That makes six straight Democratic victories at the top of the ticket, including presidential losers such as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

The Buckeye Institute’s Mayer wasn’t hopeful, even with Kasich now on the scene, that Ohio’s GOP leadership will be bold enough to do what it takes to invigorate the Ohio economy. Mayer, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, calls for a right-to-work law to “free our economy.” (Such laws undercut unionized workplaces by making union dues voluntary.)

He says the current Ohio economy is hamstrung by “forced unionization” that makes Ohio unable to compete for the new manufacturing jobs, like those of Boeing, that are streaming to the south and west.

“If we were a right-to-work state, I think we could compete,” he says, calling “right to work” the “single-biggest issue” Kasich and Republican leaders could have embraced. “I’m afraid we’re not going to be bold.”

Ohio and Wisconsin have some of the most heavily unionized public-sector workforces in the country. Both governors are unafraid to challenge their power.

Before he was sworn in, Walker successfully urged the Legislature to hold off on approving new state union contracts because he wanted state employees to pay more for their health care and pensions. In early February, using a “budget repair bill” as a vehicle, the new governor laid his cards on the table.

To fill a budget hole of some $137 million, Walker proposed that state employees pay about 5.8% toward their pension and about 12% of their healthcare benefits. This would amount to a big pay cut for state workers and save $30 million in the last three months of the current fiscal year and some $300 million in the coming two-year budget cycle.

Walker also proposed sweeping collective bargaining changes: Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index unless approved by referendum; contracts would be limited to one year, and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled; collective bargaining units would be required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union; employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues, and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues.

Further, if the governor declares a state of emergency, the bill authorizes termination of any employees absent for three days without approval of the employer or any employees who participate in an organized action to stop or slow work.

“What the governor has created is a right-to-work state for public employees,” said Joe Wineke, a former Democratic legislator who was Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s labor negotiator. “I think war has been declared.”

The alternative, Walker said, was 1,500 layoffs to state employees and as many as 200,000 children bumped off Medicaid-related programs. In the next biennium, layoffs to state employees could range from 5,500 to 6,000, with similar layoffs at the local level, he said.

Union leaders called for talks. Walker said the state didn’t have a choice. “The state’s broke. Local governments are broke. They don’t have anything to offer,” he said.
The resulting uproar paralyzed state government and drew national attention to the Wisconsin showdown.

Kasich likewise wants to get rid of Ohio’s 1983 collective bargaining law. At presstime, the Ohio Senate had approved a bill prohibiting public employee unions from bargaining over health benefits, pensions and working conditions. The Ohio House is expected to concur and to send the bill to Kasich, who has promised to sign it into law. He is also looking at measures to ban public employee strikes and penalize those who walk.

Adding urgency to their agendas are budget crises in both states. Walker and Kasich have big budget holes to fill — Wisconsin’s is estimated at more than $3 billion, while Ohio’s is pegged at about $8 billion.

“We look at privatization, we look at killing things that don’t work,” Kasich said earlier this year. “There are just no options that are off the table, except tax increases, because we can’t stomach them.... And, of course, the need to have civil service reform, which is bankrupting a lot of our cities through things like binding arbitration.”

Walker and Kasich both are revamping their commerce departments, with the help of Republican majorities, creating public-private groups.
Walker’s special-session jobs agenda, designed to get the state going toward his goal of 250,000 new jobs in four years, also includes measures to limit lawsuits, streamline regulations and provide tax breaks to businesses that relocate to the state.

But liberal interest groups and Democrats are unimpressed. “It’s not a balanced approach when Gov. Walker, facing a $3.3 billion deficit and the need for immediate job creation, spends $140 million in special-interest tax breaks that will do little to create family-supporting jobs,” opines Scot Ross, of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.

Liberals may not have the votes to stop the measures in the Republican-dominated Wisconsin and Ohio legislatures. But their rhetoric signals the coming fight for votes in the 2012 presidential election year, when Democrats will try to claw their way back into power and keep what they have in Sens. Kohl and Brown — and, most importantly, Obama.

However it turns out, you can be sure that Wisconsin and Ohio, where presidential winners are often confirmed, will be bellwethers of the battle.

Jeff Mayers is president of and, online news services based in Madison.

Data points:

Population: Wisconsin, 5.6 million; Ohio 11.5 million.

December unemployment rate: Wisconsin, 7.5%; Ohio, 9.6%; U.S., 9.4%.

Median household income: Wisconsin, $52,103; Ohio $48,011; U.S. $52,029.

Electoral votes: Wisconsin, 10; Ohio, 20.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics