In Ohio, the Tea Party Rallies Around Opposition to Health Care Mandate

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On Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of Ohio conservatives will flex their muscles in a show of force against President Obama’s health-care reform law. Activists opposed to a health-insurance mandate will submit nearly 550,000 signatures to Ohio’s Secretary of State in order to place a constitutional amendment – known as the Healthcare Freedom Amendment — on the state’s November 2011 ballot. The sweeping effort, which appears to have easily exceeded the 386,000 valid signatures required to put the amendment on the ballot, caps a 15-month effort highlighting how opposition to health-care reform — and particularly the individual mandate, its most controversial provision — remains one of the Tea Party movement’s best organizing tools. “It’s the biggest thing one of these new grassroots tea party-type groups has undertaken,” says Chris Littleton of the Ohio Liberty Council, a network of more than 75 “liberty-minded” groups sprinkled throughout the state.

But while the campaign reflects the resolve of the conservative grassroots, its practical impact is limited. The amendment, drafted by Maurice Thompson of Ohio’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, has two purposes: protecting Ohioans from an effort to pass a state-level health-care law with an individual mandate, like the Massachusetts statute that dogs Mitt Romney; and demonstrating to the U.S. Supreme Court that public opinion tilts against a mandate. Despite the labor that went into the signature drive — some 440,000 signatures were gathered by volunteers canvassing at public events and knocking on neighbors’ doors, an effort overseen by a specially formed single-issue PAC  — its leaders are aware that passage of the amendment wouldn’t exempt the state from the Affordable Care Act, and the Court will likely render the final verdict on the issue. “If we lose in the Supreme Court, that’s it,” Littleton says. “At least we’ll have state-based protection from an Ohio version of RomneyCare.”

Ohio is hardly the first state to attack health-care reform through a ballot initiative; Missouri voters backed a referendum against mandating health coverage last August, and Arizona and Oklahoma followed suit in November. These measures are merely symbolic, since legal precedent shows that federal law trumps state law. Unless the Supreme Court rules the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, Obama’s keystone domestic bill will remain the law of the land.

Even so, the coordination and clout demonstrated by a grassroots campaign in a crucial swing state augurs well for the Tea Party movement’s ability to affect coming election campaigns. Littleton recalls that back in March 2010, when the health-care fight was inching toward its denouement, a group of Tea Party activists hatched plans over a dinner to “use this as a launching pad to build infrastructure that gives us a permanent base for change.” Such an infrastructure is vital in Ohio, where unions and progressive activists launched their own highly organized campaign to repeal the state’s stiff new law restricting collective-bargaining rights, nabbing 1.3 million signatures of their own. In a pivotal battleground, the force and fervor of the folks on the ground could prove decisive next fall.

Alex Altman is a Washington correspondent at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @aaltman82. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.