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Why Ohio Is The Most Important Presidential Primary (Next Week)

And why Nina Turner is the person to watch.

Nina Turner and I grew up within blocks of one another on Cleveland’s East Side — so nearby that she, a few years my senior, could have easily been my babysitter. Turner and I never met until 2012, however, after she’d become a state senator and shortly before she began running for a different position: Ohio Secretary of State, the office responsible for overseeing elections.

She lost that race, and is now a surrogate for Bernie Sanders. But as the 2016 primary approaches next week in Ohio, there may be no more important person for both parties to watch than Turner. As she uses her signature intensity to push Sanders’s “political revolution” in familiar territory, her very presence will also serve as a reminder of Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich’s well-cloaked extremism.

Back in the fall of 2014, Republican incumbent Jon Husted defeated Turner handily in the race for Ohio Secretary of State and remained Kasich’s chief vote suppressor; months before the election, he had cut early voting hours, popular among black voters in the state. Two years later, Turner, a strong voting-rights advocate who has since become one of Sanders’s key backers, seeks a different kind of triumph: On the same Tuesday that young voters and unions helped Sanders edge out a primary victory in Michigan (or, as we say, the State Up North), the campaign sued Husted in federal court for forbidding 17-year-olds from voting in the primary even if they’ll be 18 in time for November’s general election. Husted says he’s enforcing the law as it always has been; Ohio Democrats disagree.

This sudden advocacy from Sanders comes, of course, in advance of the primary next week, where he has a chance at another upset. But Turner’s past championing of Ohio voter rights helps soften any accusations of pandering and opportunism. And while my home state has both the similar union demographics and open primary that helped push Sanders to victory in Michigan on Tuesday night, he isn’t the only reason we’ll be watching Ohio more carefully.

Amid all the dancing on Marco Rubio’s political grave, we can’t ignore the freshly dug six-foot hole next to Kasich’s chances. Like Rubio, he finished either third or fourth in all four Republican nominating contests on Tuesday, despite the backing of Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And though a new national poll shows him closing in on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, polls aren’t delegates; Kasich only has 54 of those to Trump’s 446. He has declared that Ohio is his Alamo -- lose there, and he’ll drop out.

This is a good thing, as far as I see it. I’m not terribly concerned about whatever effect his departure would have on the Republican nominating process. I’ll just be glad when we can officially say that Kasich has no shot at the presidency. Sure, he’s prone to sounding like your friend’s dad during debates, defends expanding Medicaid in Ohio, and recognizes that actual governance matters. But while the persona makes him look moderate when standing next to Rubio, Trump, and Cruz, he’s hiding some radically conservative stances.

Kasich not only backed Husted’s suppressive voter rule changes, but is also an opponent of marriage equality. He is a Lehman Brothers veteran who is prone to overblown claims about his ability to generate economic success. As for foreign policy, Reason editor Matt Welch referred to him last month as “an interventionist nightmare” who gets a pass as a supposed moderate when he’s anything but. Kasich also just signed a bill in February that blocks $1.3 million in state funding earmarked for HIV testing at Planned Parenthood. Why? Because he signs every measure limiting abortion rights or access that the Republican-controlled state legislature sends to him. (Turner, for her part, introduced a bill in 2012 meant to counter onerous abortion restrictions that would have required men to fulfill ridiculous requirements to get a Viagra prescription.)

Policy-wise, Turner's message serves as a reminder of the importance of both abortion and voting rights in this election, topics too often ignored by both Democratic candidates until recently. But her history with Ohio makes it also fitting that she be home the same week that Kasich’s presidential ambitions die at the hands of his own voters. The only problem might be that after next week, he’ll go back to Columbus — and those same Ohioans will still be stuck with him.