MONCLOVA TOWNSHIP, Ohio — State Rep. Barbara Sears is the kind of Republican the party would want to highlight these days: a woman and former business owner, fluent in health insurance issues, who has managed to repeatedly win reelection in a district where Republicans and Democrats are almost evenly divided.
But this year, the popular legislator with a strong conservative voting record has found her photo on door hangers throughout her district, pictured as the conductor of the Obamacare train to disaster. Her image has been plastered next to President Obama’s on billboards. She has been targeted in a heavy splurge of negative talk radio ads.
It’s all part of a campaign against her by Americans for Prosperity, the free-market advocacy group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The reason: Sears has championed a key element of Obamacare. Her support for the expansion of Medicaid to cover more of the state’s poor is also backed by Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich and nearly three-quarters of Ohioans, according to an AARP poll.
The Americans for Prosperity campaign against her pits one of the Republican Party’s biggest benefactors against state GOP leaders and illustrates how dominant wealthy independent groups have become at a time when the weakened GOP is trying to contend with ideological fissures and rebuild its operations around the country.
The state GOP has made it clear that it will support lawmakers who vote for Medicaid expansion, but it is hardly a match for an organization that spent more than $190 million in the 2012 election cycle and has promised a “years-long” campaign to repeal the president’s Affordable Care Act.
Americans for Prosperity is already active in 35 states. In Virginia, it organized activists to go door-to-door in the neighborhoods of two state Republican lawmakers who sit on the panel that will decide whether to expand Medicaid in that state. Its next campaign against Medicaid expansion is likely to unfold in New Hampshire. And the group is keeping an eye on other statehouses where they think Republican lawmakers could wobble on the issue.
Sears, at least, is defiant.
“I have more years invested in this issue than anyone in the House or Senate — Republican or Democrat,” said Sears, who ranks third in leadership in the Republican-controlled Ohio House. “I didn’t go to Columbus to do license plate bills.”
As it tried to get Republicans in line on the issue and block Sears’ Medicaid measure, which would extend coverage to 275,000 Ohioans, Americans for Prosperity worked with other conservative groups and tea party activists.
They were up against a sophisticated and remarkably broad coalition of advocates for Medicaid expansion. Chambers of commerce from across the state, hospital associations, manufacturing groups, labor unions and religious leaders repeatedly swarmed the statehouse to meet with GOP lawmakers on what they called “lobby days” — arguing that Medicaid expansion would strengthen the state’s economy and help the poor. It was one of the few times anyone could remember that Planned Parenthood and Ohio Right to Life were actually on the same side.
But facing the threat of a primary challenge over the issue, many Republican lawmakers stayed silent. Sears’ legislation languished in committee, never brought to the floor for a vote. Ultimately, Kasich had to make an end run around lawmakers by shuffling the decision to an obscure state board that voted for it. That last-minute maneuvering was interpreted by many in Ohio political circles as intended to shield nervous Republican lawmakers from taking a vote that could make them targets.
Americans for Prosperity leaders called the move outrageous. “Medicaid expansion will create a massive financial burden in our state,” said Eli Miller, the group’s Ohio director. “The lure of free federal dollars should be seen for the trap that it is.”
Tea party activists have vowed to work against Kasich’s reelection, and though they worked with Americans for Prosperity earlier this year, some were frustrated that the Koch group went after Sears and not the governor. “You’re out saying we’re going to fight against them — except when it really matters,” said Tom Zawistowski, who heads the Portage County TEA Party and was until recently president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition.
Conservative groups who share the tea party’s anger about the governor’s move have kept the fight alive in Ohio by filing a legal challenge that will be decided by the elected state Supreme Court. Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of six legislators and two antiabortion groups, said the challenge stood “for the simple proposition that neither this governor nor any other is a king.”
As far as the suit goes, the Ohio Republican Party has remained on the sidelines. Chairman Matt Borges said the party would “support our candidates and our officeholders who are voting their conscience on the things they think are best for the state.” In an interview in his Columbus office, he said he told officeholders, including Sears, that they should “not be intimidated” by the threats from independent groups, even if the groups’ resources could far outweigh anything the party could counter.
Yet the fear of the seemingly unlimited resources of outside groups like Americans for Prosperity was confirmed last week when Ohio House Speaker William G. Batchelder told the Columbus Dispatch that many members of his GOP caucus felt strongly that the state needed to “strengthen the Medicaid program” but that some of them didn’t want to “have their opinion known.”
Sears plans to do a round of polling to survey the damage before her 2014 race. One by one during encounters at events, grocery stores and restaurants, she has tried to explain to constituents why she is for the Medicaid expansion and why she remains vehemently opposed to the other aspects of the president’s healthcare law.
The silver lining, she says, is that all those ads against her have pumped money into the economy of her district: “It’s like our own little local stimulus package.”