What Senate lame-duck maneuver says about Ohio GOP

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Not a month after Democratic President Barack Obama won Ohio, one of the state's most powerful Republican moderates unceremoniously spiked a trio of GOP-backed bills remaining this legislative session.

GOP Senate President Tom Niehaus, who is term-limited, axed proposals that would have limited abortion, hindered Planned Parenthood funding and tightened voter ID rules.

The move raised the question: Have Obama's two Ohio victories suddenly empowered centrists within the state's increasingly conservative GOP, or did the state just witness the final Hail Mary of a GOP moderate before his party lurches to the right?

John Green, who heads the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, believes Niehaus' move suggests the GOP got a wake-up call from voters.

"Election results often do influence these kinds of decisions," Green said. "The fact that Republicans stayed in power in Ohio, but President Obama was re-elected in a close election where some of these contentious issues may have played an important role, can't have been lost on them."

Among proposals Niehaus blocked was the so-called "heartbeat bill," which would impose the nation's most stringent abortion restriction, banning the procedure after the first detectable fetal heartbeat.

Another measure he blocked would have moved Planned Parenthood to the back of the line for public funding. Opponents of the bill -- many of them women dressed in pink T-shirts -- lined the halls of the Statehouse ahead of House passage shouting protests.

David Jackson, an associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, said Niehaus and others within his party may have blamed such proposals for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's loss of the women's vote.

"If the numbers are to be believed, 56,000 more people (in Ohio) voted for Democrats than voted for Republicans," Jackson said. "Because of gerrymandering, Democrats don't get that many seats, but smart politicians look at those kinds of numbers. It's definitely not an extreme conservative state in any comprehensive sense, and it's wise to recognize that."

Tom Sutton, who teaches political science at Baldwin Wallace University, said term limits and a lame-duck session may have insulated Niehaus from the conservative backlash that may result from his decisions, allowing him to stick to his guns on his personal policy concerns about the bills.

Already, the group pushing the heartbeat measure has threatened to go against lawmakers in upcoming elections who fail to support their bill.

A week after the election, Niehaus was asked what message on women's issues he took away as a Republican from the presidential election.

"There are a lot of pundits talking about what the election meant. What I try to stay focused on is what's important to Ohio right now, and that's jobs," he said. "I mean, what are we doing to help make Ohio the right place for people to start companies, employ people, and how do they go about getting jobs? That's where I want to keep the focus in the Senate."

Even as Niehaus blocked the conservative bills, Senate Republicans were electing state Sen. Keith Faber, one of their more conservative members, as Niehaus' successor.

With Faber leading the upper chamber, and conservative House Speaker William Batchelder leading the lower chamber, Sutton said Ohioans may be witnessing the last of a breed.

"I think the concept of a moderate Republican in Ohio is rapidly disappearing," he said.

Sutton said the state's Republicans are predominantly coming from rural areas and tend to be more driven by social issues than moderates, who tend to align with the party platform on economic, regulatory and tax issues.

"You don't get the Neanderthal label quite as quickly when you're talking about oil and gas issues or taxes as when you're talking about abortion and Planned Parenthood and those kinds of things," he said.

Former U.S. Sen. and Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, one of Ohio's most high-profile moderate Republicans, dubbed Batchelder the head of the Legislature's "caveman caucus" in the 1990s for what Voinovich viewed as Batchelder's outdated beliefs on social issues.