Jon Husted survived the season as Ohio's top lightning rod for election controversies. But will the post affect the Republican's political future and a possible run for governor?
On August 14, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted woke up to a scathing editorial in the New York Times, taking his office and Ohio Republicans to task for what the paper's editorial board said was an attempt to limit voting hours in predominantly Democratic areas. "In counties likely to vote for President Obama," the editorial read, "Republicans have voted against the extended hours, and Mr. Husted has broken the tie in their favor."
Husted was furious, believing the editorial was misinformed. But out of the rising controversy, he saw an opportunity. The next day the veteran Republican politician, who has charted a moderate course during an increasingly partisan age, directed all counties to follow uniform early-voting hours. His actions reminded election-savvy Ohioans that he had pushed the same issue the year before, only to see the resulting law overturned by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
"I was fearful that if I would have done this up front, people would have thought I was overstepping my authority," Husted said right before the Nov. 6 election. "But when the controversy arose, and people demanded that I do something about it, that was great because we were then able to take decisive steps to set hours in the state that were consistent across all counties."
Being a target of criticism is an occupational hazard for politicians. But Ohio secretaries of state are even more prone to second-guessing, a trend that began in earnest after the 2000 election and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore. What had once been a sleepy office dedicated to running Ohio elections and overseeing business filings has become a lightning rod for accusations of partisan activity and even election tampering.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a conservative Republican who served from 1999 to 2007, was vilified by the left for actions he took during the 2004 election, such as issuing a directive requiring voter registration applications be printed on paper of a certain weight. To this day, conspiracy theorists believe Blackwell hijacked the 2004 election for George W. Bush. Although Blackwell easily won the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2006, he was trounced by Democrat Ted Strickland that fall in the general election.
Democrat Jennifer Brunner was similarly attacked by those on the right about decisions she made in the office she held from 2007 to 2011-including her refusal to release the names of voters whose registration information did not match data from the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles or the Social Security Administration.
What makes this new level of partisanship all the more frustrating to Blackwell and others is that by comparison to other states, Ohio's elections system is bipartisan and decentralized, with county boards of elections split between two Democrats and two Republicans. Many Ohioans know this, but outsiders still focus on the secretary of state as the architect of the entire process.
All this sounds familiar to Husted, who is following a predictable track among Ohio politicians. He has risen from state lawmaker to speaker of the House, to the state Senate and now to secretary of state. Long dubbed his party's golden boy, he's presumably a candidate for governor, likely in 2018. But after a series of controversial rulings from his office-which were subsequently overturned by federal courts-will Husted's time as secretary of state blemish his reputation enough to keep him out of the governor's office?
"It is very difficult to run for a governorship or (U.S.) Senate position since 2000 having served as secretary of state for four or eight years," Blackwell said, "because for those four or eight years you're highly targeted by the other side and you're defined and demonized. It makes independent voters harder and harder to reach."
Husted is coy about his future. He won't talk about future campaigns, saying he wants to focus on his job as secretary of state. "2018?" he said. "Such a long way away." The only move he specifically rules out is one to Washington: He believes he can have the most influence here in Ohio.
As an All-American defensive back at the University of Dayton, Jon Husted's specialty was returning punts-a skill that has come in handy for the member of the 1989 Division III National Championship football team when facing long hauls across hostile political territory.
Husted, who was adopted, became an advocate for adoption, and as House speaker he killed a bill that would have banned adoption by gay parents. That move was a thumb in the eye to those on his party's right wing, as was his opposition later, after he was elected secretary of state, to a law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls.
As a member of the five-person state ballot board, he also bucked the interests of fellow Republicans last fall when he supported "no means no" ballot language in the effort to overturn the law restricting public employees' collective bargaining rights. Republicans, who opposed repealing the law, supported a "no" vote meaning the law should not be repealed, since Ohioans traditionally vote "no" on unfamiliar issues. Husted's position, that a "no" vote on the issue should mean repeal of the law, was the ultimate outcome. Voters opted overwhelmingly last year to repeal the collective bargaining law.
Husted has also been a proponent of revamping the way Ohio draws congressional maps, although he opposed the plan known as Issue 2 which died on the November ballot.
But Husted's moderate streak was unrecognized during the election season thanks to a number of controversies. In addition to the uniform voting hours flap, Husted was criticized for his decision to remove the Democrats from the Montgomery County elections board when they voted for early voting weekend hours after Husted's directive limited early voting to weekdays. That decision survived a lawsuit, with a federal appeals court ultimately siding with Husted. Conservatives, meanwhile, weren't happy with his efforts to expand early voting.
All that paled in comparison to the controversy over voting hours the last three days before Election Day. President Barack Obama's campaign sued Husted in July, alleging changes in state law that limited those final days to overseas residents and military personnel disenfranchised other voters, typically Democrats, who tended to vote over the same time period. Husted argued that Ohioans had numerous opportunities over several weeks to vote early, and that election boards needed those days to prepare for the election. Husted appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost the battle when the high court declined to get involved.
Husted was lambasted by the left for his actions, with some blogs dubbing him "Little Kenny," a reference to Blackwell. On Oct. 16-the day the Supreme Court took a pass on the case-Husted established uniform hours for the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the election. But he defends the actions he took fighting the proposal.
"If people were going to sue us from inside and outside the state over it, I felt an obligation to fight the fight in favor of Ohio running Ohio elections rather than the courts running Ohio elections," Husted said.
How much the bruising legal fights of this fall will affect Husted's political future depends on who's talking.
Husted's reputation has taken a hit, and he'll need to run elections with less turmoil in order to rebuild confidence, according to Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck, an expert in U.S. politics and voter behavior. For her part, Brunner said Husted's moderate side broadens his appeal. "He's done just enough to buck his party that he's even softened up some Democrats," she said.
But Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, believes Husted is under pressure from the GOP's right wing to suppress his naturally moderate views. Redfern, who worked closely with Husted in the legislature, predicts the secretary of state will have difficulty fending off Tea Party criticism and could struggle to win a Republican primary for governor.
"People like Jon Husted, who built his reputation as a fairly moderate Republican, will be viewed not as team members," Redfern said.
GOP party chairman Bob Bennett said unequivocally that the Obama campaign and Redfern set out to trash Husted and the state's election system. But does he think Husted will be hurt by any of it? "No," Bennett said. "Jon Husted is a decent man who does the right thing and will be judged accordingly."
Sitting in his office a few days before the election, Husted is friendly and relaxed. If he's worried about the pressures facing him, it doesn't show. A couple of decades after his college football days, the Montpelier, Ohio, native is still trim and athletic, and looks younger than his 45 years. He admits to a competitive streak, a fact illustrated when he pulls out his smartphone to show off the best times recorded by his daughters, ages 3 and 5, in dashes around their Upper Arlington neighborhood.
Such competitiveness comes naturally: Not only was Husted a star football player, for years he held the Dayton football program's record for most pull-ups-in the high 50s. And Husted's wife, Tina, is a serious marathoner who at 40 won her age group in the Nationwide Children's Columbus Marathon this fall with a sub-three-hour performance.
On election night, Husted's dejected demeanor while announcing results showing an Obama victory in Ohio summed up his feeling as a Republican. But the way those results were reported is another matter. His office avoided the worst-case scenario that some had feared: That the presidency would hinge on Ohio's provisional ballots, which would be counted as the nation watched.
Instead, by mid-evening on election night, Husted was able to stride to the podium in the Statehouse atrium and tell reporters from around the world, including Germany, England and the Philippines, there were no major problems that would slow tallying. Husted texted chief of staff Scott Borgemenke at 6:30 the next morning-Husted had gone home only three hours earlier-and directed him to draft a letter of thanks to Ohio's 40,000 poll workers.
The smooth election didn't mean Husted was out of the woods. The Friday before the election, his office had issued an after-hours directive that placed the burden on voters to check boxes on provisional ballots indicating the type of alternative identification they provided, such as a utility bill or military ID. The change seemed innocuous enough, but voter advocates howled, saying Husted had gone back on his word that this responsibility should fall on poll workers.
As a result, instead of basking in the glow of a successful operation, Husted's office was lambasted in court the day after the election by federal judge Algenon Marbley, who angrily demanded to know why the change had been made. "You've got a lot of explaining to do," Marbley told lawyers representing Husted at a hearing.
Husted said he had tried and failed to reach a last-minute compromise with voter advocates. He instead found himself with another set of negative headlines. Husted stood by his decision, which was further criticized by Marbley in a Nov. 13 ruling in which the judge called Husted's action "a flagrant violation of a state election law" and ordered him to issue a new directive changing the policy. Husted was appealing that ruling.
Publicly, Husted takes such criticism in stride and insists it won't derail his reputation or his future plans. Regular Ohioans don't spend their days thinking about him, he said, and when he's recognized in public, they wish him luck.
"In this Twitter age sometimes people forget what happened 24 hours ago because they're just inundated with so much information," Husted said. "But they do remember about a person's character, they remember about whether they acted with integrity, whether they treated people fairly. All those kinds of things. That's how I conduct myself, and that's what I think most people will believe."
After a pause, he added, "Or at least I will walk around thinking that."
Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a legal affairs reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus.