Labor unions can only hope next year’s main event goes as well as Tuesday's dress rehearsal in Ohio.
The landslide defeat via referendum of a state law spearheaded by Republican Gov. John Kasich that curbed collective-bargaining rights of public employees instills hope in unions and their Democratic allies that they have found a template to defeat the GOP in 2012. Labor leaders say they will apply the lessons learned in the Buckeye State, a key political battleground, to a bevy of swing states that could determine the balance of power in Washington.
“Our work is just beginning this morning,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters on Wednesday. “Already, we’re moving into the next phase, where working people are mobilizing in Ohio and nationwide.”
Labor's takeaways from last night’s larger-than-expected 22-point victory: Voters were disappointed Kasich and his Republican allies committed ideological overreach instead of focusing on job creation. They also liked and trusted the men and women targeted by the reforms—public employees like teachers and police officers—more than the politicians who did the targeting.
In an exit poll of Ohio voters conducted by Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, only 25 percent of the state’s electorate said the collective-bargaining law “was the change Ohio was voting for.”
“This was very much a sense of overreach and it was inconsistent of what voters had been asking for,” Molyneux said.
Democrats can make Republican overreach a theme of next year’s election, labor officials said, with Democrats pointing not just to Ohio’s example but to governors in battleground states like Wisconsin and Florida. They also can highlight the Republican agenda in the U.S. House.
“What happened in Ohio in last night matters everywhere,” Trumka said.
Molyneux’s firm surveyed 1,015 early and Election Day voters by telephone for the AFL-CIO. One finding in particular might have the most far-reaching consequence for next year: The poll reported that 61 percent of white non-college voters opposed the new law.
That demographic has confounded Democrats of late, and has always been a weak spot for President Obama. Last year, 63 percent of non-college whites supported Republican House candidates, according to exit polls. In Ohio, 54 percent of them backed Kasich as he narrowly unseated the incumbent, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
That means that in exactly one year, blue-collar whites had a 36-point swing against an initiative backed by a governor they helped to put in office. If Democrats and Obama can come close to replicating that shift next year, they would easily triumph in a state that is a key to every presidential election. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.
Labor unions are vowing to harness Tuesday’s momentum. Earlier this year, Trumka announced plans to build a robust political organization to operate in an array of important states, and Ohio was the first test case of his new agenda. The organization built this year will stay in place through 2012 and beyond, a significant difference from years past.
“A year ago, just like three and five years ago, everyone was packing up and going home,” said one labor official.
Even as Democrats gloated about the victory, Republicans—publicly at least—claimed to be unperturbed. The Ohio race was a more important fight for liberals than conservatives, GOP strategists said, and the amount of resources that unions invested into the battle was far greater than what they can manage in a national election.
“There was no single touchstone to motivate Republicans to raise money, spend money, and win,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. “I think you’re going to see in the general election picture the opportunity to defeat Barack Obama is important.”
Wilson added that white non-college voters might have swung against the collective-bargaining bill, but that doesn’t mean they’ll support Obama.
“That demographic hates Obama with a burning passion,” he said.
Republicans also point to the success the party had in Wisconsin, where Democrats tried to make an election issue of another contentious bill to limit public employees' collective bargaining rights, but the GOP turned back a recall effort to reclaim the state Senate and won a symbolic state Supreme Court race. Next year’s presidential battle will hinge on Obama’s handling of the economy and other national initiatives he’s pushed, like the health care law, said Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist.
“I think election is going to be more about 'Obamacare' and size and role of government … than the issue of collective bargaining,” he said.