In many ways, Ohio Sec. of State LaRose’s troubles are symbolic of his party’s, experts say

By: - August 18, 2023 5:00 am
Members of the Louisiana Republican Party held a protest on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol on March 21, 2023, when they expected the former president to be arrested. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Members of the Louisiana Republican Party held a protest on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol on March 21, 2023, when they expected the former president to be arrested. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

It used to be a cliche in American politics that Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line. 

It now might be hard to find somebody Democrats are universally in love with. But under Donald Trump, the Republican imperative to fall in line is stronger than ever — even if it means taking positions that are losers with voters.

One of the most recent examples is Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Formerly a critic of Trump, Ohio’s top elections official last month endorsed the former president, who now faces four felony indictments — including two related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

On Wednesday, LaRose so acutely felt the need to appease Trump that he purged his spokesman after tweets came to light that were critical of the famously thin-skinned former president. 

Clearly, the secretary of state is trying to get Trump’s endorsement in Ohio’s GOP U.S. Senate primary, or at least keep Trump from attacking him. Such attacks have proven fatal to other Republican primary hopefuls in the Trump era.

LaRose’s present challenges and recent troubles in many ways are emblematic of the travails the entire Republican Party is experiencing. Both have taken and doubled down on positions that have cost them with the broad electorate as they try to placate the most unyielding voices in their party, two experts said.

“The incentives for these parties to push their agendas are so strong that they could care less about what the general public wants in many cases,” said Brandon J. Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

But in a healthy democracy, ignoring what the public wants is a political loser — and Republicans have been given numerous real-world examples of that since Trump’s surprise victory in 2016.

Ohio case

LaRose gave a powerful example as he campaigned to pass Issue 1 — a ballot measure that would have made it much more difficult for voters to initiate amendments to the Ohio Constitution. Many current proposals are in response to a gerrymandered legislature that has passed unpopular, sometimes corrupt, laws and that has stymied legislation that enjoys overwhelming support from the public.

A major reason Issue 1 supporters wanted to effectively keep Ohioans away from the state constitution: They wanted to preserve harsh abortion restrictions that took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v Wade in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health.

The Ohio law prohibits abortion in the vast majority of cases after about six weeks of pregnancy — a point at which many women don’t know they’re pregnant — and it makes no exceptions for rape and incest. This in a state where 58% of voters support a constitutional amendment saying, “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions…”

So it’s perhaps not coincidental that LaRose and his allies proposed an amendment that — among other ways it would make it harder to change the constitution — would raise the threshold to pass an amendment from 50% to 60%.

Based on who was supporting Issue 1, it was clear that it was also aimed at blocking other popular measures such as fighting partisan gerrymandering, enacting stricter gun laws and raising the minimum wage.

As LaRose and his allies sold the measure, they apparently didn’t believe they had a good story to tell. Instead, they spouted a raft of misleading and contradictory rationales, some of which rose to the level of outright lies.

But as voters flooded to the polls in a questionably scheduled August election, it became apparent that voters saw through the smoke. Issue 1 went down to a 57-43 defeat.

It’s especially damaging when voters recognize that an attempt to reduce their rights was wrapped in a cloak of deception, Rottinghaus said.

“It’s the old adage that you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all the time” he said. “People are attentive to issues when their rights are on the line. They really zero in. And I think that’s what this was.”

Lessons learned?

Despite the drubbing, many elected Republicans remain defiant. 

LaRose and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, made excuses instead of acknowledging that the public didn’t like the officials’ attempt to take away their power.

It appears that even Republican leaders who did acknowledge that Issue 1 was a loser are gearing up for what seems likely to be another loss as they battle an abortion-rights amendment that will be on the ballot in November. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade last year, voters in Kansas, Michigan, KentuckyWisconsin and elsewhere have voted in favor of candidates and issues in support of abortion rights.

Despite the seemingly clear message that the public doesn’t like strict abortion limits, Republicans in Ohio, other states and at the national level continue to push them. So why can’t leaders of a party who have shown considerable strategic prowess in the past find a way out of the political cul-de-sac in which they find themselves?

It has to do with the system they created in which they empowered their base through gerrymandering and now are beholden to it, one expert said.

“There’s not any way out that they’d be willing to go,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati. “I think there would be a legitimate way out if they proposed a new abortion law that was grounded in where the average Ohioan is, rather than grounded in the most extreme voices in their party. But I don’t think there’s three Republican legislators who’d be willing to do that.”

Trump toxins

Coming off his Issue 1 drubbing, LaRose is walking into what might be another no-win situation as he tries to stay on Trump’s good side through the 2024 Senate Primary. 

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Official photo.

In 2016, LaRose called Trump “disgusting and appalling.” And in 2019, after he became secretary of state, LaRose took the high-minded stance that as the state’s top elections official, it wouldn’t be proper to engage politically in the coming presidential election.

“I’m not endorsing candidates or showing up at campaign rallies, because … when the eyes of the world are on Ohio next year, the people of Ohio need to know that their chief elections officer is calling balls and strikes, and running fair elections in partnership with each and every one of you,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted LaRose as saying.

In fairness to LaRose, Bernie Moreno, who is also competing for Trump’s endorsement, in 2016 said Trump was “a lunatic invading the party,” NBC reported.

But that was all so last decade.

Trump has since been charged in two cases with crimes tied to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. He also sat in the Oval Office on Dec. 18, 2020 and discussed declaring martial law and seizing voting machines. And in December, he took to his social media platform to call for the “termination” of the U.S. Constitution so his 2020 loss could be invalidated. 

Despite — or perhaps because — of that behavior, LaRose seems to have concluded that he has no choice but to support Trump. So despite the former president’s attacks on democracy, hush-money payments to a porn star, alleged business fraud and endless lies, LaRose now says Trump is preferable to the “woke left.”

“Like most Ohioans, I’m deeply concerned about the direction of our country,” LaRose said in his endorsement of Trump. “As a father and a fighter, I’m not willing to sit quietly while the woke left tries to cancel the American dream.”

Such language doesn’t seem calculated to appeal to college-educated women who might have voted Republican in the past, but are put off by last summer’s Dobbs decision and by Trump’s behavior — especially after the Jan. 6, 2020, attack on the U.S. Capitol. But LaRose seems to believe he has little choice.

“If you put it in the context of the larger pattern of Republican officials in which they ultimately all conform or face the Mitt Romey-ization of their career, I was not surprised,” Niven said of LaRose’s endorsement of Trump. “What’s a little surprising is the personal righteousness with which LaRose vowed to be a fair elections official (in 2019) and claimed to be revolted by Trump in 2016.”

Of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, Niven said, “There’s no path for the righteous.”

Proven loser

But as with taking away abortion rights and political power from voters, following Donald Trump down the MAGA highway has generally been a loser as well.

The former president has chalked up some wins. Perhaps guiding LaRose’s thinking is that in Ohio, Trump’s support of J.D. Vance for U.S. Senate helped power his victories in last year’s Republican Primary and in the general (although the decision by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to dump $28 million into the Vance campaign last August surely didn’t hurt.)

But in other races, Trump and his endorsements frequently have not translated into success.

Since he ascended to the presidency, his party was trounced in the 2018 midterm House election. And, even though he won’t admit it, Trump had all the advantages of incumbency and still lost the 2020 election — by 7 million in the popular vote, and by 306-232 in the Electoral College.

Just after his loss, Trump’s incessant whining about a supposedly “rigged” election likely kept many Georgia Republicans at home, helping to elect two Democrats and costing Trump’s party control of the Senate.

And last year, Republicans had many structural advantages, but the widely predicted “red wave” never materialized. Democrats kept control of the Senate and Republicans won back the House — but only by a margin of five seats.

The Dobbs decision overturning federal abortion rights clearly dampened the wave. But so did Trump. 

In numerous races, the most MAGA, election-denying candidates were the ones who survived the GOP Primary only to go down to defeat in the general. They include Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, who lost his U.S. Senate race, and Ohio’s JR Majewski, who lost by 13 points in a House district that Trump had won by four.

In traditionally red Arizona, Kari Lake ran for governor in large part by amplifying Trump’s lies that he actually won in 2020. After her loss, she’s been lying about that race, too

Last week, Lake was in Ohio to promote Issue 1, the ballot measure LaRose was championing that would make it harder for voters to change the state Constitution. But she also bashed LaRose — probably because she’s supporting Moreno in the primary.

What’s a party to do?

LaRose has to win the GOP Primary before he has to face the statewide electorate. And to do that, he’s had to reverse himself, endorse an indicted politician with a poor record of winning and embrace positions that voters have shown they don’t like.

He even fired his spokesman.

Rottinghaus, of the University of Houston, blamed partisan gerrymandering and the one-party government it’s created for putting politicians in such straightjackets.

“Why would they care what the general public wants when their political support is so strongly tied to their partisan bases?” he asked. “If one party takes over the legislature, they draw lines and redraw lines to support their party base. The extremes in the districts are able to win their primaries and that continues to push candidates farther to the right or left. It’s a recurring process.”

That leaves LaRose swimming against the tide in at least two ways. For one, he’s opposing abortion rights even though they’ve proven to be a winner every time they’ve been on the ballot — and the issue seems to have staying power. 

For another, LaRose is embracing a president who is headed into a season of legal turmoil likely to be larded with new revelations of tawdry, undemocratic behavior. Trump’s unpopularity was shown in an AP NORC poll that was released Wednesday. It found that 51% of those surveyed had a very unfavorable view of the former president, while only 19% had a very favorable view of him — a strong indicator Americans who hate the former president far outnumber those who love him.

Even so, Moreno is doing all he can to bludgeon his fellow Republicans from straying from Team Trump. On Tuesday, he posted a tweet saying, “Any GOP candidate for office who is too weak to fight back against Dems weaponizing the Justice System against President Trump doesn’t deserve your vote.”

Moreno then called on Republicans to support the impeachments of President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee.

Being told “no”

Republicans elsewhere appear to be similarly tied to an individual (Trump) and an orthodoxy that a majority of the public doesn’t like. That could lead to electoral outcomes Republican leaders don’t like.

“They’re going to experience the sting of hearing the word ‘no’ in a way that they’re unfamiliar with,” said Niven, of the University of Cincinnati. “They’re going to lose this reproductive rights question. They know they’re going to lose it. That was the whole point of Issue 1. And these are folks who never heard the word ‘no.'”

A big question is how Republican leaders will react when they don’t like being told “no” by voters and the courts. In at least some instances, early returns aren’t encouraging.

  • In Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers are threatening to impeach a left-leaning state Supreme Court justice who was sworn in only a few weeks ago. They want her to recuse from a gerrymandering case because she criticized gerrymandering on the campaign trail.
  • In Alabama, Republican leaders so far have refused to comply with a June U.S. Supreme Court order to redraw its congressional maps so they’re not so gerrymandered against Blacks.
  • Ohio’s congressional and legislative delegations represent unconstitutional districts. That’s because the state Redistricting Commission — on which LaRose sits — ignored seven bipartisan orders from the state Supreme Court to comply with anti-gerrymandering amendments in the state Constitution. Those amendments passed with more than 70% of the vote. 

If LaRose makes it through the GOP Primary, he’ll likely run in an election in which a much-tighter anti-gerrymandering amendment is on the ballot. It’s an open question whether he and his party will comply with it if it passes.

“Once you’ve crossed that line that the Constitution doesn’t matter and court orders don’t matter, what’s left to rein you back in?” Niven said.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.