On Tuesday Ohioans go to the polls to accept or reject anti-union Senate Bill 5 (SB 5) as the new law of the land in their state. As of this writing, it looks like it will go down in flames.
SB 5 passed the Ohio Legislature as a measure that its Republican endorsees argued was a necessity, saying it would help reduce the state budget by limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Of course, Ohio wasn’t the only state to try this path — Republicans in Wisconsin passed similar legislation, spurring massive protests and a saga in which opposing Democrats fled the state in order to stall a vote on the issue, which ended up being passed and signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R). Ohio Democratic legislators didn’t leave the state, but they did fight SB 5 until the bitter end and ultimately lost. But a coalition of Democratic and labor forces gathered 1.3 million signatures to put the new law on the ballot (only about 231 thousand were needed), which triggered Tuesday’s statewide vote.
Here’s the breakdown of what’s happened over the last year, since the GOP made gains in the Ohio statehouse, to what now seems the likely fall of their signature achievement.
A year ago, Gov. John Kasich (R) beat incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D) by two percentage points, 49 - 47, by about 77 thousand votes out of over 3.8 million cast in the 2010 election. SB 5 was introduced on February 1st, a little over three weeks after Mr. Kasich was sworn in, and was one of his top priorities.
SB 5 wasn’t passed by a united front of Republicans — it actually took a lot of maneuvering within the GOP. Republicans didn’t have the votes on the Ohio state Senate’s Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee, so they replaced a dissenting GOP state Senator, Bill Seitz, with a pro-SB 5 member. That made all the difference — like most legislative committees in statehouses across the county, there was a close 7 - 5 split, majority Republicans to the Democratic minority. When Seitz wouldn’t provide the 7th and final vote, he got the boot.
On the macro level, Republicans also had to amend the legislation to blunt criticism, especially the original components that actually allowed for criminal charges against workers who participate in strikes. But they also made it harder for unions to collect fees, further weakening their ability to organize and participate in elections, something Republicans said wasn’t their aim in proposing SB 5, but certainly seemed like an advantageous bonus.
The legislative jockeying served as evidence that SB 5 was always going to be controversial, and suggested that some Republicans feared the reaction from independent voters. One example that made things a bit worse in Ohio: the Wisconsin legislation limiting collective bargaining rights specifically exempted police and firefighters, while Ohio’s bill did not. Wisconsin Republicans gave themselves a break by not picking a direct fight with cops patrolling the streets and firefighters running into burning buildings, which as we’ve seen in Ohio, has hurt the anti-repeal forces greatly.
Ohio was part of the push by Republican governors to take the momentum from 2010 and use it to pass bills limiting collective bargaining, not only to save money as they argued, but to limit union power politically. Certainly they had other items on their agendas, but it’s telling that both Gov. Walker in Wisconsin and Gov. Kasich in Ohio used their precious political capital to push for the anti-union measures directly after being sworn in. Of course, the issue received national coverage, which seems to have exacerbated the unpopularity of SB 5 specifically.
That being said, it’s not as if Republicans were on the worst political ground of all time. While popular, labor unions no longer enjoy revered status among Americans, and have been the target of pointed attacks for decades. But it’s harder to demonize the teacher at a voter’s local school or the cops keeping the community safe than it is to call all public sector workers overpaid bureaucrats.
Likely for all the reasons above, the polling has simply shown the proposal to be unpopular, as voters didn’t buy the connection between the new law being about budgets and limiting collective bargaining. There are a few things at play here — messaging, pre-existing political fault lines and the overall public opinion of the two opposing parties (Republicans in one corner and labor/Democrats in the other). But the key seems to be a failure by pro-SB 5 forces to make this about a governing strategy and not a political one.
It’s hard to rail against the power of unions in a campaign, and then pivot upon winning the election to arguing the anti-union bill you’re proposing is all about saving government money. The issue was already charged and sides were picked. And if it’s a play for legislating partisan orthodoxy, independent voters can react harshly, which seems to have taken place in Ohio — as they are now ready to repeal it. The TPM Poll Average of the contest shows voters supporting a repeal of the new law 56.9 - 34.6, with independent voters breaking hard toward scuttling it.
The individual most involved with pushing SB 5 has tanked (Kasich) and US Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who visibly opposed the legislation, has risen in the polls against his potential 2012 challengers. The Presidential picture will be more clear with new polling, but the best Republican candidate against President Obama in the state has been Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney. Unfortunately for the GOP, Romney hurt himself by rankling conservatives after coming to the state and refusing to take a position on the repeal effort, then coming out “110 percent in support of Gov. Kasich” on SB 5 the next day. Now he’s tied to an issue that could go down very hard, and he didn’t make any friends with the right wing by waffling on it so publicly.
Finally, if Ohio Republicans were hoping for a death blow to the power of unions in a state with a strong labor history, they may have had the opposite effect. In interviews with TPM, Ohio Democratic party and union staffers said that the whole fight has essentially ignited party activism in the most important of swing states.
Election Day Pre-Op
We will see what happens on Tuesday, but all signs point to a classic overreach on the part of Ohio Republicans. GOPers made gains as the alternative to perceived mismanagement of the economy by Democrats. But in Ohio the GOP took those gains as an endorsement of policies that are popular within the Republican electorate specifically. Republicans in Wisconsin were able to both pass the bill and then just maintain control of the state Senate in recall elections. But a huge loss in statewide vote on the issue certainly realigns things in Ohio.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.