Even in moderate places like Ohio, gerrymandering has let unchecked Republicans pass extremist laws that could never make it through Congress.
By Jane Mayer
August 6, 2022
Ohio’s voters are moderate, but its legislature is to the right of South Carolina’s. Illustration by Alex Merto
By Jane Mayer
As the Supreme Court anticipated when it overturned Roe v. Wade, the battle over abortion rights is now being waged state by state. Nowhere is the fight more intense than in Ohio, which has long been considered a national bellwether. The state helped secure the Presidential victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then went for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Its residents tend to be politically moderate, and polls consistently show that a majority of Ohio voters support legal access to abortion, particularly for victims of rape and incest. Yet, as the recent ordeal of a pregnant ten-year-old rape victim has illustrated, Ohio’s state legislature has become radically out of synch with its constituents. In June, the state’s General Assembly instituted an abortion ban so extreme that the girl was forced to travel to Indiana to terminate her pregnancy. In early July, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana obstetrician who treated the child, told me that she had a message for Ohio’s legislature: “This is your fault!”
Longtime Ohio politicians have been shocked by the state’s transformation into a center of extremist legislation, not just on abortion but on such divisive issues as guns and transgender rights. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who served as governor between 2007 and 2011, told me, “The legislature is as barbaric, primitive, and Neanderthal as any in the country. It’s really troubling.” When he was governor, he recalled, the two parties worked reasonably well together, but politics in Ohio “has changed.” The story is similar in several other states with reputations for being moderate, such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania: their legislatures have also begun proposing laws so far to the right that they could never be passed in the U.S. Congress.
Ohio’s law prohibits abortion after six weeks—or even earlier, if doctors can detect fetal cardiac activity—unless the mother is at risk of death or serious permanent injury. Dr. Bernard noted that the bill’s opponents had warned about the proposed restrictions’ potential effect on underage rape victims. “It was literally a hypothetical that was discussed,” she told me. Indeed, at a hearing on April 27th, a Democrat in the Ohio House, Richard Brown, declared that if a thirteen-year-old girl “was raped by a serial rapist . . . this bill would require this thirteen-year-old to carry this felon’s fetus.”
The bill’s chief sponsor, State Representative Jean Schmidt, is an archconservative Republican who represents a district east of Cincinnati. At the hearing, she responded to Brown by arguing that the birth of a rapist’s baby would be “an opportunity.” She explained, “If a baby is created, it is a human life. . . . It is a shame that it happens. But there’s an opportunity for that woman, no matter how young or old she is, to make a determination about what she’s going to do to help that life be a productive human being.” The rapist’s offspring, she suggested, could grow up to “cure cancer.” Her remarks were deemed so outlandish that they were denounced everywhere from the Guardian to the New York Post.
According to David Niven, a political-science professor at the University of Cincinnati, a 2020 survey indicated that less than fourteen per cent of Ohioans support banning all abortions without exceptions for rape and incest. And a 2019 Quinnipiac University poll showed that only thirty-nine per cent of Ohio voters supported the kind of “heartbeat” law that the legislature passed. But the Democrats in the Ohio legislature had no way to mount resistance: since 2012, the Republicans have had a veto-proof super-majority in both chambers. The Democratic state representative Beth Liston, a pediatrician and an internist in Ohio, who voted against the bill, told me, “Doctors are going to be afraid of providing ordinary care. Women are going to die.”
In a referendum on August 2nd, Kansas voters strongly rejected an abortion ban, indicating that even voters in deep-red states—when given the chance to express themselves—oppose radical curtailments of reproductive rights. Yet Ohio voters have had no such recourse, and the General Assembly is poised to pass even more repressive restrictions on abortion when it returns from a summer recess. State Representative Gary Click—a pastor at the Fremont Baptist Temple and a Republican who serves the Sandusky area—has proposed a “Personhood Act,” which would prohibit any interference with embryonic development from the moment of conception, unless the mother’s life is endangered. If the bill passes, it could outlaw many kinds of contraception, not to mention various practices commonly used during in-vitro fertilization. In an e-mail, Click told me that “the ultimate question that needs to be answered” is “When does life begin?” He added, “I believe the answer to that question is self-evident.” Click is a graduate of an unaccredited Christian school in Michigan, Midwestern Baptist College, whose Web site says that “civil government is of divine appointment” and must be obeyed “except in things opposed to ‘the will of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ ”
Click acknowledged that the story of the ten-year-old rape victim is discomfiting, adding that “we all have a visceral reaction” to such a scenario, “regardless of one’s political leaning.” But the news had not made him question his position; rather, he questioned the girl’s story, calling it “suspicious,” and noting that the incident “fit too neatly” with the pro-choice agenda. (According to law-enforcement authorities, a twenty-seven-year-old Ohio man confessed to twice raping the girl when she was nine. He has since pleaded not guilty.) Click also echoed an argument made by Ohio’s Republican attorney general, Dave Yost, who claimed that the ten-year-old—“if she exists”—would have qualified for the new statute’s medical-emergency exception. This assertion, however, has been disputed by various doctors, including State Representative Liston. “I don’t know the child’s health condition,” she acknowledged to me. “But it’s hard to say that simply because she is young she would meet the requirement of risk as defined by the new law.” Mortality rates are generally higher for pregnant girls who are younger than fifteen, but, Liston said, “there’s nothing in the law that states that age is a sufficient exception.”
Click, who is a close ally of the Republican congressman Jim Jordan, is one of Ohio’s most extreme legislators, but he’s hardly out of place among the General Assembly’s increasingly radical Republican majority. Niven, the University of Cincinnati professor, told me that, according to one study, the laws being passed by Ohio’s statehouse place it to the right of the deeply conservative legislature in South Carolina. How did this happen, given that most Ohio voters are not ultra-conservatives? “It’s all about gerrymandering,” Niven told me. The legislative-district maps in Ohio have been deliberately drawn so that many Republicans effectively cannot lose, all but insuring that the Party has a veto-proof super-majority. As a result, the only contests most Republican incumbents need worry about are the primaries—and, because hard-core partisans dominate the vote in those contests, the sole threat most Republican incumbents face is the possibility of being outflanked by a rival even farther to the right. The national press has devoted considerable attention to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, but state legislative districts have received much less scrutiny, even though they are every bit as skewed, and in some states far more so. “Ohio is about the second most gerrymandered statehouse in the country,” Niven told me. “It doesn’t have a voter base to support a total abortion ban, yet that’s a likely outcome.” He concluded, “Ohio has become the Hindenburg of democracy.”
Three days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, I went to a luncheonette in Columbus, Ohio, to meet with David Pepper, an election-law professor, a novelist, a onetime Cincinnati city councilman, and a former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. Pepper, who is fifty-one, looked boyish and preppy in a polo shirt. He had recently become a small phenomenon on Twitter, having posted videos in which he delivered impassioned short lectures, punctuated with frantic scribbles on a whiteboard, about the growing crisis of democracy in America’s state legislatures. When he attended Yale Law School, in the nineties, his geniality and Buckeye boosterism had led his classmates to name him the Most Likely to Be President of the Cincinnati Board of Tourism, but he spoke to me with an almost desperate alarmism.
Last year, Pepper wrote a book, “Laboratories of Autocracy,” whose title offers a grim spin on a famous statement, attributed to the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, calling America’s state legislatures “laboratories of democracy.” The subtitle of Pepper’s book, “A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines,” is a bit more hopeful. He is determined to get the Democratic political establishment to stop lavishing almost all its money and attention on U.S. House, Senate, and gubernatorial races (say, the current Senate race in Ohio between Tim Ryan and J. D. Vance) and to focus more energy on what he sees as a greater emergency: the collapse of representative democracy in one statehouse after another.
Pepper understands that few Americans share his obsession. “No one knows anything about statehouses,” he said. “They can’t even name their state representatives. And it’s getting worse every year, since the local media’s dying and the statehouse bureaus are being hollowed out.” Columbus has an unusually strong press corps, but it is an exception. And it is precisely because so few Americans pay attention to state politics that the legislatures have become ideal arenas for manipulation by extremists and special interests—who often work in tandem. “I’m banging my head against the wall,” Pepper told me. With a nod to the political consultant James Carville, he added, “My God, Democrats, don’t you see it? It’s the statehouse, stupid! That’s where the attack is happening!”
Pepper scoffed at recent claims, made by conservative Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the state legislatures are more suited than the judiciary to adjudicate the divisive issue of abortion. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe, Brett Kavanaugh issued a concurring opinion in which he argued that the Court was merely restoring “the people’s authority to address the issue of abortion through the processes of democratic self-government.” Pepper said of Kavanaugh’s concurrence, “It’s so disingenuous—total gaslighting. Many statehouses no longer have representative democracy. Because they’ve been gerrymandered, they don’t reflect the will of the people.”
With Trump, he believes, the situation became a lot worse—the former President “made people a little more willing to be lawless, and he gave oxygen to white supremacy.” But Pepper thinks that “people make a huge mistake when they equate the attack on democracy entirely with him.” In his view, Democrats, including President Joe Biden, who have portrayed Trump as a singular aberration are failing to see that “the Republican attack on democracy preceded him”—and that “if Trump was locked up tomorrow it would continue.”
The shift began, Pepper believes, with the shock of Obama’s 2008 victory. The election of the country’s first Black President provoked a racial and cultural backlash, and many Republican officials panicked that their party, which was overwhelmingly white, was facing a demographic demise. Swept out of power in Washington, the Republican Party’s smartest operatives decided to exploit the only opening they could find: the possibility of capturing state legislatures in the 2010 midterm elections. They knew that, in 2011, many congressional and local legislative districts would be redrawn based on data from the 2010 census—a process that occurs only once a decade. If Republicans reshaped enough districts, they could hugely advantage conservative candidates, even if many of the Party’s policies were unpopular.
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Citizens United decision, which allowed dark money to flood American politics. Donors, many undisclosed, soon funnelled thirty million dollars into the Republicans’ redistricting project, called redmap, and the result was an astonishing success: the Party picked up nearly seven hundred legislative seats, and won the power to redraw the maps for four times as many districts as the Democrats.
Gerrymandering the shapes of districts to create safe seats is an old trick that has been used by both sides in American politics. I recently spoke with Jonathan Jakubowski, the chairman of the Republican Party in Wood County, Ohio, and the author of “Bellwether Blues: A Conservative Awakening of the Millennial Soul,” and he emphasized that, in the nineteen-eighties, it was the Democrats who gerrymandered the state’s districts. “We’re all equal-opportunity offenders,” he said. But the redmap project—powered by advances in digital mapping and by billionaire donors such as the fossil-fuel magnates Charles and David Koch—took electoral distortion to a new level. And Ohio, which had become one of the most fiercely fought battleground states in Presidential politics, was subjected to an especially tortured dissection.
The journalist David Daley tells the story of redmap in his 2016 book, “Ratf **ked.” By 2012, he writes, the Republicans’ plan had already begun to pay off handsomely: even though Obama was reëlected in Ohio that year, by three percentage points, and Sherrod Brown, a progressive Democrat, was easily reëlected to the Senate, Republicans had a resounding triumph in the state legislature. They won a 60–39 super-majority in the House.
The Ohio statehouse has grown only more lopsided in the past decade. Currently, the Republican members have a 64–35 advantage in the House and a 25–8 advantage in the Senate. This veto-proof majority makes the Republican leaders of both chambers arguably the most powerful officeholders in the state—and they proved it when they undermined Governor Mike DeWine’s initial public-health-minded approach to the covid-19 pandemic. DeWine is a Republican, yet he was a leader in imposing such emergency health orders as mask mandates and the closing of schools and businesses. Ohio voters had widely supported these measures. But anti-vaccine and anti-mask extremists in the statehouse passed a law stripping the Governor and his health director of the authority to issue such orders. (One Republican lawmaker, a doctor, suggested that “the colored population” was more vulnerable to covid-19 because “they do not wash their hands as well as other groups.” The lawmaker was subsequently named the chairman of the Ohio Senate’s health committee.) Since the legislature’s rebellion, DeWine—once regarded as a centrist conservative—has increasingly capitulated to his party’s radical base, on public-health policy and much else. (Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Governor said that “we disagree with that sentiment.”) Daley told me that the redmap campaign “took a state that was slightly red and gave it a hue more like Elizabeth Taylor’s lipstick,” adding, “The upshot has been some of the most far-right, noxious, pay-for-play politics we’ve seen over the last decade. That’s what gerrymandering enables. When voters lose the ability to throw the rascals out, the rascals do whatever they please.”
Matt Huffman, the influential president of the Ohio Senate, recently said as much himself. Speaking in May to the Columbus Dispatch about the Republicans’ super-majority, he said, “We can kind of do what we want.”
For Pepper, the state’s transformation has been crushing. He has watched the reputation of Ohio’s public-school system slide as Republicans have siphoned off public funding to support failing, politically connected charter schools. In 2010, Education Week ranked the state’s schooling as the fifth best in the country; in 2021, U.S. News & World Report ranked it thirty-first. Last year, F.B.I. agents told USA Today that public-corruption cases in Ohio were the most egregious in the country. In the past five years, the state has had five speakers of the House, because two were forced out as a result of the biggest bribery scandals in Ohio’s history. Larry Householder, who was removed from office in July, 2020, is scheduled to be tried on federal racketeering charges this coming January.
This wasn’t the path that Pepper had foreseen for his state. A native of Cincinnati, he grew up in a relatively apolitical, upwardly mobile household: his father climbed the ranks at one of Ohio’s largest companies, Procter & Gamble, ultimately becoming its chairman. After Pepper graduated from Yale Law School, he returned to Cincinnati and clerked for Nathaniel R. Jones, a Black federal judge, who ignited in him an interest in public service. In 2001, Pepper ran for the city council, and to everyone’s surprise he won, partly owing to a catchy slogan: “Just Add Pepper.” After two terms in office, he moved up to the county commission, eventually presiding over it, and in 2010 he was recruited by the state’s Democratic governor, Strickland, to run for auditor, a statewide office. At the time, the auditor was one of five state officials on a commission overseeing the redistricting process, and could therefore act as an effective curb against gerrymandering. On the campaign trail, Pepper recalls, “I was running around, talking about gerrymandering, and no one knew what the hell I was talking about.” Meanwhile, his opponent was getting a torrent of suspicious contributions from people who worked for out-of-state energy companies—many of which, Pepper deduced, had ties to the controversial coal baron Bob Murray, the chief executive officer of Murray Energy, an Ohio-based company. Such donations initially made little sense to Pepper—the auditor’s role had nothing to do with coal mines—until he discovered that redmap had targeted his state, and that his candidacy stood in the project’s way. He lost the race. In 2014, he made a second bid for statewide office, running this time for Ohio attorney general. Again, he was defeated. In 2015, he became the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, a position that he stepped down from at the end of 2020.
Pepper had become consumed by the problem of gerrymandering, but the subject drew only blank stares from Democratic Party officials. To counter this apathy, he told me, he decided “to write a novel about gerrymandering—which, of course, is a horrible idea.” In the book, “The People’s House,” a Russian oligarch modelled on Vladimir Putin rigs an American election after figuring out that, thanks to gerrymandering, he needs only to flip a few dozen swing districts. The book appeared in the summer of 2016, when Putin’s clandestine efforts on behalf of Trump were making headlines; Politico called the book “the thriller that predicted the Russia scandal.” Pepper was pleased about the media attention, but he was disappointed that more people didn’t focus on the novel’s message: “how bad gerrymandering is.” With evident frustration, he told me that media and political insiders prefer “to talk about politics in terms of personalities.”
A recent study by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a nonpartisan nonprofit, documents how deeply right-wing extremism has infiltrated U.S. statehouses. Of the 7,383 people who served in state legislatures in the 2021-22 session, eight hundred and seventy-five had joined far-right Facebook groups. (All but three were Republicans.) The study describes the fringe beliefs that many of these members shared, including “the idea that Christians constitute a core of the American citizenry and/or that government and public policies should be reshaped to reflect that.” A group promoting this view, the Ohio Christian Alliance, counts eleven Ohio state legislators among its Facebook members, including Gary Click. Last year, the organization helped block a bill, the Ohio Fairness Act, that would have barred housing and employment discrimination against the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
State Representative Casey Weinstein, a second-term Democrat from a suburban swing district between Akron and Cleveland, and one of the General Assembly’s two Jewish members, told me that he’s recently become “really concerned” about a new level of extremism. On January 23, 2022, a protest outside his house shattered a peaceful Sunday afternoon with his wife and young children. Some thirty vehicles blocked the entrance to his driveway; one had a flag bearing the message “kneel for the cross.” Weinstein told me, “I thought it was a Trump group, but it turned out to be a church, Liberty Valley, near Macedonia, Ohio. Some of these churches are militant, and some are basically militias operating under the guise of religion. They’re weaponizing religion into a power grab.” He went on, “So, I’m the Jew, and they came to my house to try to intimidate me and my family. That’s what’s happening, and where this is going.”
Weinstein became further alarmed this past March, when Republicans in the statehouse pushed legislation prohibiting public-school teachers from teaching “divisive concepts.” The bill, aimed at censoring class discussions of critical race theory—which was never part of the Ohio public-school curriculum to begin with—threatened teachers with suspension unless they neutrally instructed students about “both sides of a political or ideological belief.” When Morgan Trau, an enterprising statehouse reporter for a television station in Cleveland, pressed one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sarah Fowler Arthur, for details, the lawmaker provoked an uproar by offering the Holocaust as an example of a topic that required a “both sides” approach. “You should talk about these atrocities that have happened in history, but you also do have an obligation to point out the value that each individual brings to the table,” Fowler Arthur said, adding that students should consider the Holocaust “from the perspective of a German soldier.” As Fowler Arthur went on, she seemed to misunderstand both the scope and the nature of the Holocaust, referring to it as an event in which “hundreds of thousands,” rather than six million, Jews were killed, and suggesting that victims were murdered “for having a different color of skin.” Weinstein and other Jewish leaders in Ohio vociferously denounced what came to be known as the Both Sides of the Holocaust Bill. “That was enough for me,” Weinstein told me. “What unique value did the German Nazis bring to the table?” He noted that Fowler Arthur, who sits on the Ohio House’s Primary and Secondary Education Committee, “was homeschooled her entire life, has never set foot in a public school, and elected not to go to college.” Weinstein added, “There’s nothing wrong with that, until she starts censoring what can and cannot be taught in public schools.” (Fowler Arthur declined to comment.)
The real intent behind attacking public-school curricula, Weinstein believes, was to “fire up the Republican base” about the teaching of slavery, the Civil War, and the civil-rights movement—in other words, to get out the conservative vote by inflaming the racial grievances of white Ohioans. The “divisive concepts” bill championed by Fowler Arthur opposes teaching any reading of American history suggesting that “the United States and its institutions are systemically racist.”
Pepper noted that the efforts to control the curriculum in Ohio are “very similar to the meltdown in democracy in other places.” Like Russia’s attempts to censor what is taught to students about Ukraine, he said, the legislation promoted by Fowler Arthur represents an attempt to put forth a sanitized view of history—in this case, “to ban teaching parts of our history that cast a bad light on white America.” Pepper asked me, “If this was happening in another country, what would you say? You’d say, ‘Oh, my gosh—your democracy is under attack!’ Well, it’s happening in Columbus.” Indeed, he warned, it’s happening in state capitols across the country.
Ohio Republicans put the “divisive concepts” bill on hold after the idea of teaching neutrally about the Holocaust provoked national condemnation. But Ohio’s General Assembly otherwise proceeded at a breakneck pace this past spring—debating a bill enabling the inspection of the genitals of transgender student athletes, and passing a raft of legislation about guns. Many of these new laws were so extreme that they inspired fierce protests from Ohio residents.
A 2018 poll conducted by Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, showed that Ohioans, by clear majorities ranging from sixty-one to seventy-five per cent, wanted the state legislature to enact new gun-control laws: banning high-powered semi-automatic rifles, including the AR-15; banning extended ammunition magazines; banning bump stocks that, in effect, make semi-automatic rifles automatic; enacting a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases; raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from eighteen to twenty-one. But no such measures were passed. Instead, the state legislature has turned Ohio into a so-called “stand your ground” state, where it is legal for residents to kill a trespasser without first attempting to de-escalate the situation. Lawmakers also passed a bill that allows Ohioans aged twenty-one or older to carry concealed handguns virtually anywhere, without first obtaining a permit or undergoing a background check and firearms training. In response to the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the Ohio General Assembly rushed through a law that enables any school board to arm teachers and other staff—including cafeteria workers and bus drivers—after only minimal gun training. The legislation was written by a lawmaker who owns a business in tactical-firearms training, and the lawmaker’s business partner gave testimony in the Ohio Senate in support of the bill, which specified that armed school personnel needed only twenty-four hours of firearms training. (Law-enforcement officers in Ohio must undergo some seven hundred hours of training.) The bill was so extreme that it was denounced in hearings by more than three hundred and fifty speakers—including representatives of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and of the state’s largest police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio.
In an interview, Michael Weinman, the head of government affairs for the Ohio chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents some twenty-four thousand law-enforcement officers, described the new gun laws as “dangerous” and “insane.” Thanks to the legislation, he explained, “anyone can come into Ohio and carry a concealed firearm,” and need not mention having the gun if stopped by law enforcement. Weinman pointed out that the law about arming school employees contains no provision requiring that lethal weapons be locked safely, adding, “Can you imagine a kindergarten student sitting down to be read to, and there’s a gun in the kid’s face?” He noted that, other than teachers, most employees of a school “haven’t been taught how to discipline people—and most school shooters are students.” Melissa Cropper, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, told me, “It’s unbelievable. The more guns you have in schools, the more accidents and deaths can happen, especially with such minimal training.” She added, “We are every bit as bad as Texas and Florida when it comes to these laws. We are becoming more and more extreme.”
Weinman said that the rightward turn on guns in Ohio has been driven, in no small part, by “very aggressive gun groups,” some of which profit from extremism by stoking fear. This helps to sell memberships and to expand valuable mailing lists. “These groups are very confrontational,” Weinman said. He recently testified in the Ohio General Assembly against loosening state gun laws; afterward, he told me, Chris Dorr, the head of a particularly militant group called Ohio Gun Owners, chased him out of the room and down a hallway, demanding that he be fired. In an online post, Dorr, who maintains that the National Rifle Association is too soft in its defense of gun rights, posted a closeup shot of Weinman with the caption “remember this face,” adding in another post that Weinman is “the most aggressive gun-rights hater in Ohio.” Dorr and his two brothers, Ben and Aaron, operate affiliated gun groups around the country, which share the slogan “No Compromise.” During the pandemic, the Dorrs’ groups expanded into other vehemently anti-government causes, and helped lead anti-mask and anti-vax protests. Niven, the political scientist, said that the Dorrs “cultivate relationships with the hardest-right members of the state legislature, and can get their bills heard.” Ninety per cent of Ohio voters favor universal background checks for people trying to buy guns, Niven noted, “but the Democrats can’t get a hearing.”
Teresa Fedor, a Democratic state senator who has served in the General Assembly for twenty-two years, described Ohio’s new gun and abortion laws as the worst legislation that she has ever witnessed being passed. She told me, “It feels like Gilead”—the fictional theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Fedor added, “We’ve got state-mandated pregnancies, even of a ten-year-old.”
The issue is personal to her. Fedor, a grandmother, is a former teacher; in her twenties, when she was serving in the military, she was raped. She had an abortion. Fedor was a divorced single mother at the time, trying to earn a teaching degree. “I thought my life was going to be over,” she said. “But abortion was accessible, and it was a way back. To me, that choice meant I’d be able to have a future. I feel like I made it to the other side, and have the life I dreamed of as a little girl, because I had that choice.” Without the freedom to have an abortion, she said, “I wouldn’t be a state senator today.”
In 2015, during a floor debate over abortion policy, Fedor testified about her experience. As she was speaking, she was enraged to notice that another lawmaker, who opposed her view, was chuckling. She said that Republicans who serve in districts that have been engineered to be impervious to voters are “just not listening to the public, period—there’s no need to.” Many of the most extreme bills, Fedor believes, have been written not by the legislators themselves but by local and national right-wing pressure groups, which can raise dark money and turn out primary voters in force. Nationally, the most influential such group is the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that essentially outsources the drafting of laws to self-interested businesses. In Ohio, Fedor told me, it is often extreme religious groups that exert undue influence. She then noted that one such organization is about to have “an office right across from the statehouse chamber.”
Facing Ohio’s Greek Revival statehouse is a vacant six-story building that is slated to become the new headquarters of the Center for Christian Virtue, a once obscure nonprofit that an anti-pornography advocate founded four decades ago, in the basement of a Cincinnati church. In 2015 and 2016, the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center classified the organization as a hate group, citing homophobic statements on its Web site that described “homosexual behavior” as “unhealthy and destructive to the individual” and “to society as a whole.” The group subsequently deleted the offending statements, and, according to the Columbus Dispatch, it has recently evolved into “the state’s premier lobbying force on Christian conservative issues.” In the past five years, its full-time staff has expanded from two to thirteen, and its annual budget has risen from four hundred thousand dollars to $1.2 million. The group’s president, Aaron Baer, told me that the new headquarters—the group bought the building for $1.25 million last year, and plans to spend an additional $3.75 million renovating it—is very much meant to send a signal. “The message is that we’re going to be in this for the long haul,” Baer said. “We’re going to have a voice on the direction of the state—and the nation, God willing.”
The center already commands unusual influence. E-mails obtained by a watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability, show that Baer has been in regular contact with Governor DeWine’s office about an array of policies. The center’s board of directors includes two of the state’s biggest Republican donors, one of whom, the corporate lobbyist David Myhal, previously served as DeWine’s chief fund-raiser. A third director, Tom Minnery, who has served as the center’s board chair, is a chairman emeritus of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a powerful national legal organization that was created as the religious right’s answer to the American Civil Liberties Union. And, until earlier this year, a fourth director at the center was Seth Morgan, who is currently the vice-chairman of the A.D.F.
The most recently available I.R.S. records show that the center and the A.D.F. share several funding sources—notably, the huge, opaque National Christian Foundation—and have amplified each other’s messages. In April, the center celebrated the A.D.F.’s legal defense of an Ohio college professor who refused to use a student’s preferred pronouns. In addition, the center works in concert with about a hundred and thirty Catholic and evangelical schools, twenty-two hundred churches, and what it calls a Christian Chamber of Commerce of aligned businesses. Jake Grumbach, a political scientist specializing in state government who teaches at the University of Washington, told me that the center illustrates what political scientists are calling the “nationalization of local politics.”
The Center for Christian Virtue appears to be the true sponsor of some of Ohio’s most extreme right-wing bills. Gary Click, the Sandusky-area pastor serving in the Ohio House, acknowledged to me that the group had prompted him to introduce a bill opposing gender-affirming care for transgender youths, regardless of parental consent. The center, in essence, handed Click the wording for the legislation. Click confirmed to me that the center “is very proactive on Cap Square”—the Ohio capitol—adding, “All legislators are aware of their presence.” Click’s transgender bill isn’t yet law, but a related bill, also promoted by the center, has passed in the Ohio House. It stipulates that any student on a girls’ sports team participating in interscholastic conferences must have been born with female genitals. The legislation also calls for genital inspections. Niven observed that “many anti-trans sports bills were percolating” in Republican-ruled statehouses, but “leave it to Ohio to pass a provision for mandatory genital inspection if anyone questions their gender.” He went on, “That’s gerrymandering. You can’t say ‘Show me your daughter’ and stay in office unless you have unlosable districts.”
In a phone interview, Baer told me that his mother and father, who divorced, were Jewish Democrats. But his father converted to Christianity, and became a Baptist pastor. After a rocky adolescence, Baer himself converted to a more conservative form of evangelical Christianity. He told me that the only “real hope for our nation is in Jesus, but we need safeguards in the law.” He described gender-confirming health care for transgender patients as “mutilation.” Baer believes that the Supreme Court should overturn the legalization of same-sex marriage, and he opposes the use of surrogate pregnancy, which he called “renting a womb,” because it “permanently separates the children from their biological mothers.” He supports the Personhood Act—State Representative Click’s proposal to ban abortions at conception. As for Ohio’s much publicized ten-year-old rape victim, Baer told me that the girl would have been better off having her rapist’s baby and raising it, too, because a “child will always do best with the biological mother.”
“Even if the mother is in grade school?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Baer is untroubled by the notion that gerrymandering has enabled minority rule. “I think the polls that matter are the polls of the folks turning out to vote,” he said.
The vast majority of Ohio residents clearly want legislative districts that are drawn more fairly. By 2015, the state’s gerrymandering problem had become so notorious that seventy-one per cent of Ohioans voted to pass an amendment to the state constitution demanding reforms. As a result, the Ohio constitution now requires that districts be shaped so that the makeup of the General Assembly is proportional to the political makeup of the state. In 2018, an even larger bipartisan majority—seventy-five per cent of Ohio voters—passed a similar resolution for the state’s congressional districts.
Though these reforms were democratically enacted, the voters’ will has thus far been ignored. Allison Russo, the minority leader in the House, who is one of two Democratic members of the seven-person redistricting commission, told me, “I was optimistic at the beginning.” But, she explained, the Republican members drafted a new districting map in secret, and earlier this year they presented it to her and the other Democrat just hours before a deadline. The proposed districts were nowhere near proportional to the state’s political makeup. The Democrats argued that the Republicans had flagrantly violated the reforms that had been written into the state constitution.
This past spring, an extraordinary series of legal fights were playing out. The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the map—and then struck down four more, after the Republican majority on the redistricting commission continued submitting maps that defied the spirit of the court’s orders. The chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court was herself a Republican. Russo told me, “If norms were being obeyed, we would expect that there would have been an effort to follow the first Ohio Supreme Court decision. But that simply didn’t happen.”
The Republicans’ antics lasted so long that they basically ran out the clock. Election deadlines were looming, and the makeup of Ohio’s districts still hadn’t been settled. “They contrived a crisis,” Russo told me. At that point, a group allied with the Republicans, Ohio Right to Life, urged a federal court to intervene, on the ground that the delay was imperilling the fair administration of upcoming elections. The decision was made by a panel of three federal judges—two of whom had been appointed by Trump. Over the strenuous objection of the third judge, the two Trump judges ruled in the group’s favor, allowing the 2022 elections to proceed with a map so rigged that Ohio’s top judicial body had rejected it as unconstitutional.
On Twitter, Bill Seitz, the majority leader of the Ohio House, jeered at his Democratic opponents: “Too bad so sad. We win again.” He continued, “Now I know it’s been a tough night for all you libs. Pour yourself a glass of warm milk and you will sleep better. The game is over and you lost.”
Ohio Democrats, including David Pepper, are outraged. “The most corrupt state in the country was told more than five times that it was violating the law, and then the federal court said it was O.K.,” he told me. “If you add up all the abnormalities, it’s a case study—we’re seeing the disintegration of the rule of law in Ohio. They intentionally created an illegal map, and are laughing about it.”
Russo likens the Republicans’ stunning contempt for the Ohio Supreme Court to the January 6th insurrection: “People are saying, ‘Where is the accountability when you disregard the rule of law and attack democracy?’ Because that’s what’s happening in the statehouses, and Ohio is a perfect example.”
Pepper has resorted to giving nightly Zoom lectures to small groups of Democratic activists and donors from across the country, in the hope of opening their eyes to what’s happening at the ground level in the statehouses. Meanwhile, he recently co-founded a group called Blue Ohio to fund even seemingly doomed races in deep-red local districts. Even if these Democratic candidates lose in 2022, he says, they will at least be making arguments that voters in many districts would never otherwise hear. “You can’t just abandon half the country to extremism,” he warns.
As Pepper sees it, Republicans understand clearly that, “if it were a level playing field, their positions would be too unpopular to win.” But “this is not a democracy to them anymore.”
He told me, “There are two sides in America, but they’re fighting different battles. The blue side thinks their views are largely popular and democracy is relatively stable—and that they just need better outcomes in federal elections. The focus is on winning swing states in national elections. The other side, though, knows that our democracy isn’t stable—that it can be subverted through the statehouses. Blue America needs to reshape everything it does for that much deeper battle. It’s not about one cycle. It’s a long game.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the August 15, 2022, issue, with the headline “Goodbye, Columbus.”