In Ohio, Obamacare fight renewed as GOP governor and activists tussle

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the Cleveland Clinic last week as part of his push to expand Medicaid in his state.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

It is the center of the political universe in presidential contests. And now the war over the nation’s new healthcare program has come to Ohio as well, with potential repercussions for the short- and long-term future of the state’s governor, John Kasich.

Kasich has been feuding with some of his fellow Republicans over whether to expand the Medicaid insurance program for state residents, under terms of the healthcare plan. GOP lawmakers stripped the expansion from the state’s budget, prompting an end-run by Kasich to the state’s obscure Controlling Board, which on Monday approved the expansion. (The board normally doesn’t deal with matters as fraught as the multimillion-dollar federal benefit under Obamacare.)

By Wednesday, the matter was in the courts, after a conservative legal group filed suit to block the expansion on behalf of six legislators and two anti-abortion groups.


“Our lawsuit stands for the simple proposition that neither this governor nor any other is a king,” Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center, which filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “For government to be limited, the making of transformational public policy requires the assent of the Ohio General Assembly, and cannot be done through administrative overreach. This occasion requires Ohioans to draw a line in the sand and affirm that we’d rather not bring Washington, D.C.- style decision-making to Ohio.”

Kasich, who could not be reached for comment, is not the only Republican governor to favor expanding the reach of Medicaid. Among others, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Arizona’s Jan Brewer earlier backed the Medicaid expansion despite arguments from some in their party that any breach in the wall of opposition to President Obama’s healthcare plan was intolerable. All have argued that federal coverage for poor residents -- whose care otherwise lands in the fiscal lap of local hospitals and governments -- benefited their states.

The Ohio governor’s latest move inflamed relations with the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, whose president, Tim Phillips, called the Controlling Board move “outrageous.”

“Republican majorities, in the end, said we don’t think this is good for the folks in our state or for taxpayers,” he said in an interview with the L.A. Times’ Maeve Reston. “ We think it’s pretty outrageous that a governor would then go around the elected representatives of the people and go to an unelected board.”

As far as the political calculus, it is the same for every Republican governor who has chosen to rile his party’s conservative wing in advance of the 2014 elections: Will any loss among those voters be offset by increased support among moderates or Democrats who otherwise would have gone with the challenger? Ohio conservatives will have an additional question: Is a vote for Kasich any more difficult because he ran with strong tea party support before embracing part of the healthcare plan those voters disdain?

Kasich comes into the race as a threatened incumbent, if one whose approval ratings of late have increased from their previous basement levels. Several polls have had him ahead of the presumed Democratic alternative, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. But Kasich remains below the 50% threshold, a sign of weakness.


Kasich has undergone a few political iterations already. In the 1990s, he was that decade’s Paul Ryan, the GOP budget wunderkind pressing against the desires of then-Democratic President Clinton. By 1999, he had morphed into a long-shot presidential candidate. How long a shot he was for the 2000 Republican nomination became quickly apparent during his gee-whiz, stream-of-consciousness -- and brief -- campaign.

He merrily roared across the countryside, bowling in Iowa, mushing sled dogs in New Hampshire, and hailing the car next to him on a Los Angeles freeway: “Turbo, baby, with a little Van Halen out of the speakers!”

But he was piloting a blow-up raft against the aircraft carrier commanded by George W. Bush, and, predictably, he was squished. In the weird ways of presidential politics, of course, that has not stopped people from considering him for 2016, particularly if he wins reelection next year to the governorship of perhaps the most critical presidential state.

Twitter: @cathleendecker