Last night’s resounding repeal of a far-reaching Ohio law that curbed public-sector union rights has energized Democrats in a state where they suffered across-the-board losses in 2010 and which looms – again – as a crucial bellwether for 2012.
The law – a centerpiece of the agenda of Republican Gov. John Kasich and the GOP-controlled legislature – was rejected by about a 3-to-2 margin. Only a half-dozen of Ohio’s 88 counties voted to support the measure.
The labor-backed repeal effort, known as Issue 2, had made its way to the ballot after opponents submitted a record 1.3 million signatures. The repeal forces raised an estimated $30 million, far more than backers of the law, which enabled them to spend freely on television ads.
The margin and the breadth of opposition to the law on Election Day suggests that many independents and Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the law. Crucial to the opposition were police and firefighters, whose labor rights were restricted by the law and who gave opponents a sympathetic face for their movement.
“It’s a big repudiation of Kasich,” says John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University. “And it’s made it possible for President Obama to win Ohio.”
In 2008, the Buckeye State was a cornerstone of Obama’s electoral college victory. But until now, the state’s continuing economic troubles – following the 2010 GOP sweep – put a damper on Democratic hopes of Obama winning it again in 2012.
The silver lining for Republicans was that a different measure on Tuesday’s ballot – which would preclude the government from mandating participation in a health-care system – passed by an even larger margin. Though the measure, known as Issue 3, is considered largely symbolic, its passage, driven by dissatisfaction with Obama’s health-care law, suggests an Ohio electorate that’s frustrated with politics across the board rather than one moving full speed into the arms of the Democratic Party.
The paradoxical results mean that Election Night in Ohio was “a mixed bag, and therefore not much of a bounce for Obama,” says Mark Weaver, a GOP consultant in the state.
To GOP consultant Ben Cannatti, the results of Issue 2 primarily show that “the Democrats had an overwhelming funding advantage and a simpler message to convey to voters on the issue. The funding and message gap will be nowhere near as severe in '12 as it was on this issue.”
Still, students of Ohio politics say that the impact of the labor-law repeal effort should not be underestimated, since it gives Democrats and their labor-union allies boosts in ways both tangible (voter lists and contacts) and intangible (a shot of adrenaline).
“The unions are the infrastructure” of the state Democratic Party, and the repeal of the bill “reenergizes them after taking a beating in 2010,” says Bill Binning, a Youngstown State University political scientist and former Republican official.
Meanwhile, unions – and by extension, Democrats – were able to seize an animating issue, fairness. “Part of the Democrats’ story line on Issue 2 was how the law was ‘unfair,’” says Stephen C. Brooks, a political scientist with the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. An upcoming battle over redistricting could keep that theme alive, Brooks adds.
Douglas J. Preisse, a Republican and a principal at the Columbus-based lobbying and communications firm Van Meter, Ashbrook & Associates, agreed that there would be a boost to unions and Democrats from the Issue 2 results, but he says that boost will be limited.
“It's speed bump, not a brick wall,” he says. “Almost no one will vote in the presidential, Senate and congressional races in November 2012 based on the distant memory of a ballot issue a year past. That said, the unions will enjoy some momentum -- not matched to their hyperbole, but real. For a while.”
Preisse added that Kasich “has so many active irons in the fire that there will be much to talk about in the next weeks and months, and next year, with his aggressive agenda. That doesn't stop."
Other observers see the results as a more serious wound for Kasich, whose approval ratings have been underwater for months. A late-September poll by Quinnipiac University, for instance, found Kasich with 40 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval. “If the gubernatorial election were held today, Kasich would be back on Fox News,” says Melanie Blumberg, a California University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies Ohio politics, referring to Kasich's previous job.
Observers say Kasich doesn't seem likely to do a full-blown policy reversal. “Having watched Kasich for many years, I don’t see him changing a lot,” Russo says. “He’s not [former moderate Republican governors] Bob Taft or George Voinovich. He’s much more of an ideologue. It would be a forced conversion.”
More likely, Russo says, is that Kasich will break the newly repealed bill into smaller chunks that have greater public support. This could drive a wedge between portions of the 60 percent of voters that supported repeal.
Russo and others describe this labor-backed coalition, while victorious, as fragile. “Can they keep this together?” he asks. “Indications are that it will be very difficult.”