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Moral issues strong in Ohio elections

Treatment of the tiniest political miscalculation by the leader of the Ohio House last week showed wedge issues are as powerful as ever this election year.

The decision by Democratic Speaker Armond Budish to deny recognition on the legislative floor to a teen who had won a National Right to Life oratory contest snowballed from a routine show of leadership muscle to a cable news-sized gaffe within a matter of days.

The anti-abortion group’s cries of protest over the move — distributed through an incisive PR effort — were joined by Republicans and lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, generally a friend of more liberal causes.

“When you see Right to Life and the ACLU on the same side, there’s a good chance you made the wrong choice,” said Grant Neeley, a political science professor at the University of Dayton. “I think it would have been a non-event had she received it.”

Instead, by Thursday the snubbed teen, 19-year-old Elisabeth Trisler of western Ohio’s Shelby County, and her mother were appearing on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Budish reversed his decision by week’s end. He said he wanted to correct any misinterpretation that he was censoring an anti-abortion viewpoint in favor of his own position supporting abortion rights. He said he’d only wanted to avoid a potentially divisive issue.

But Neeley said Budish miscalculated how the instantaneous delivery of information can combine with the might of a 24-hour cable news network to bring attention to a seemingly minor political choice.

“It shows the power of communications and the ability to take something that is a small story in the state of Ohio — and one that really has no policy consequence whatsoever — and use it to highlight a partisan division,” he said.

John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said the way the issue ballooned over the course of a week is a good indicator of how other, similar wedge issues may play across the country this year.

He said Ohioans concerns about moral issues haven’t been wiped out entirely by their economic concerns.

“In and of itself, this incident is not terribly important, but it is a real good indicator of the nature of our politics today,” Green said. “We have a whole bunch of these controversial issues that never go away and that’s happening in the context of a highly polarized political environment.”

Floor honors have traditionally been reserved for achievements that lack a partisan edge, such as humanitarian awards, scout honors, sports victories and retirements. State Rep. John Adams, the Republican lawmaker who sought Trisler’s recognition, tested the envelope on the issue, Green said.

“None of this is by accident,” he said. “What’s going on here is a struggle for attention and advantage. The goal here is to get attention, to get reaction. Activists on one side and the other need each other to create that conflict, that controversy. We call them friendly enemies.”

Thomas Roepke, a former Republican political operative who has become an evangelical minister, said those sorts of predictable exchanges tend to substitute for deeper discussions of tough moral issues.

“Government tries to walk through it, but they’re really ill-equipped,” said Roepke, who runs the youth ministry at New Hope Community Church in Loudonville. “These are good men and women but it’s a deeper issue than they can address because of where we are culturally.”

Neeley said it remains to be seen whether this or future judgment snags can be mounted up against Democrats eager to retain their control of the House and four of five statewide offices, including governor.

“This is going to be a rough election for the Democrats in Ohio unless the economy turns around,” he said. “In that sense, is the handling of an honor for an oratory award going to be the thing that brings down the Democrats? I don’t think it will be. But it’s certainly a fortuitous turn of events for Republicans that it happened.”

Julie Carr Smuth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.