Three years after organized labor flexed its muscle and knocked out a state law that would have gutted collective bargaining for tens of thousands of public workers in Ohio, the giddiness Ohio Democrats felt from that victory has faded.
Instead of mounting a concerted effort to recapture the governor’s office, which seemed like a realistic goal in the aftermath of the 2011 Senate Bill 5 referendum, Democrats are focusing more on down ticket races and hoping labor support can stem a GOP sweep of statewide offices and a landslide re-election for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
As the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the fall campaign approaches, Ohio Democrats find themselves in a tough spot, said University of Dayton political scientist Dan Birdsong.
“I don’t think there is enough residual anger around SB5 to turn out anti-Kasich voters, in part, because his challenger is turning out to be weak,” Birdsong said. ‘This is trouble for Democrats because turnout is driven in large part by the top of the ticket.”
Despite Kasich’s collective bargaining debacle, Ed FitzGerald, his Democratic opponent, always faced an uphill battle. He is virtually unknown across the state and Kasich is a recognizable politician who has grown in popularity and is extremely well-funded.
But FitzGerald has done nothing to help himself. Most of the attention his campaign has received revolves around news he drove for roughly a decade without a valid driver’s license and police stopped him at 4:30 a.m. in a car in a secluded parking lot with a woman who is not his wife.
FitzGerald then issued a letter to supporters about his son’s cancer being in remission. Critics quickly called the letter exploitative.
In recent days FitzGerald has all but signaled he is giving up. His campaign manager and communications director quit and the candidate said that he was shifting resources to a get-out-the-vote drive to help down ticket races.
Against a well-funded incumbent who could be on TV almost non-stop until election day, it’s not clear if the FitzGerald campaign will air even one more ad on television.
All this in a race that had him trailing by double digits even before his run of negative publicity. Political analysts say labor support and SB 5 anger is probably what will keep FitzGerald from a defeat of historical proportions. Most expect him to do much better than Democrat Rob Burch, who received less than 25 percent of the vote against Republican George Voinovich in 1994.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said Senate Bill 5 is old news and Ohio voters see that Kasich’s track record includes balanced budgets, across the board tax cuts and 250,000 new jobs.
“Even if the union bosses can’t do it, union members are able to look at the totality of someone’s work,” he said. “And when you look at what Gov. Kasich has done there is a lot that anybody could support.”
But critics of Kasich — which include organized labor groups — say he has been no friend of workers. His tax cuts and budget policies have disproportionately benefited the wealthy and put the squeeze on local governments, they say. There is a fear a convincing Kasich win will embolden him to support right-to-work legislation viewed as anathema to unions.
“I think at this point strong support from labor will be essential for any Democratic victory in the state. We have the program here to provide that,” said Mike Gillis, spokesman for the Ohio AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization for labor with more than 500,000 members statewide. “We saw what happened when a lot of our voters stayed home in 2010. A lot can be inferred from that election to this one. Now we have the education of John Kasich’s complete first term to know what he really stands for.”
Labor impact unclear
Labor’s impact on elections is less clear than it once was.
Just 13.4 percent of Ohio workers were in unions as of 2011, down from 21.1 percent in 1990 and 37.2 percent in 1970, according to researchers David Macpherson and Barry Hirsch.
Still, labor remains a big source of funding for Democratic candidates. Groups representing plumbers to prison guards to professors have chipped in more than $400,000 to FitzGerald’s campaign, making up 14 percent of his overall contributions. They’ve given nearly $300,000 to the Ohio Democratic Party this year.
And they’re organizing a grassroots campaign to get their members to vote for the union-endorsed candidates, who tend to be Democrats. The Kasich campaign also noted that a handful of private sector unions have contributed money to his re-election bid.
Certainly the overwhelming defeat of the GOP-backed Senate Bill 5 was the kind of victory labor hadn’t had in years. After Kasich signed the legislation, voters rejected it by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.
But rallying voters around a single issue, particularly one that impacts their own wallets, is far easier than getting the same people to knock on doors, donate money and vote for a gubernatorial candidate who is unlikely to win.
Some public employees and union members will never vote for Kasich because of Senate Bill 5, but recent poll numbers show it might not be a litmus test for every voter.
Quinnipiac University pollsters found 80 percent of Ohio voters say the fight over collective bargaining is still very important or somewhat important to them, but just 31 percent say it makes them less likely to vote for Kasich, 19 percent are more inclined to vote for him and 45 percent say it won’t affect their vote.
Senate Bill 5 ignited Ohioans against their governor, but there is a sense among many that the fight is over, said Birdsong, who doubts the same fervor can be summoned this year.
“Since SB5 was repealed, those voters already won,” he said.
Campaigns to ramp up
With the exception of the governor’s race, Ohio’s political campaigns have been on low simmer. With nine weeks until election day, that is about to change.
Consider this: six million registered voters are receiving absentee voter applications in the mail right now and early voting starts in just six weeks.
Republicans are looking to keep their tight grip on state government, where the GOP holds comfortable majorities in the House and Senate, six of seven seats on the Ohio Supreme court and all five statewide offices.
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking away from the governor’s race to more winnable down ticket contests.
Democrats are betting that state Rep. Connie Pillich, D-Cincinnati, an Air Force veteran, can oust incumbent state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Marine Corps vet. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, beat Mandel in 2012 after the Republican declared for the Senate almost immediately after voters sent him to the treasurer’s office.
Ohio Rep. John Patrick Carney, D-Columbus, an attorney and capable fundraiser, also seems to be mounting a competitive race against incumbent Auditor Dave Yost.
These and other statewide races, though, could hinge on whether FitzGerald becomes a drag on the entire ticket.
The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police announced its endorsement of FitzGerald the day news broke of the early morning traffic stop. Ohio FOP President Jay McDonald said they’re explaining Kasich’s anti-union record and local government budget cuts to the 25,000 FOP members.
“We tell them ‘Here’s the record. Do we want four more years of this? If not, vote for the endorsed candidate.’ It’s a tough spot for us to be in right now but we didn’t pick it,” McDonald said.
Some in labor warn that “right-to-work” legislation is coming, particularly if Kasich sees his re-election as a mandate. Right-to-work laws typically prohibit requirements that workers join a union as a condition of employment, along with other provisions. Earlier this year when reporters questioned Kasich about right to work, he would only say that it’s not on his agenda.
“Kasich has never taken it off the table. When someone repeatedly refuses to say he won’t do it, that tells you something,” said Democrat David Pepper, who is running against incumbent Attorney General Mike DeWine. “After the election, most people who have been paying attention wouldn’t be surprised if it came up right away.”
Gillis said Ohioans deserve to hear Kasich’s stance on right-to-work now, before voting begins. He also noted that Mandel is on the record as a supporter of right to work while Pillich opposes it.
“Therefore this is one of the down ballot races we will be focused on because of the clear distinction when it comes to the candidates’ positions,” Gillis said.
In December 2012, with the wounds of SB 5 still raw, just 36 percent of Ohio voters said Kasich deserves to be re-elected.
In the latest Quinnipiac Poll, released at the end of July, 50 percent said he deserves re-election against 37 percent who said he does not. The same poll gave the Republican governor a 12-point lead over his Democratic opponent.
Political experts say a big win on election night could catapult Kasich to the head of the line of GOP presidential contenders for 2016. Kasich, 62, has an impressive looking resume: 18 years in Congress, eight years in investment banking with Lehman Brothers, four years governing the seventh-largest state in the country.
Cedarville University political scientist Mark Caleb Smith said Kasich’s resume and accomplishments would make him a serious candidate.
“That’s no guarantee that he could secure the primary nomination. Could John Kasich appeal to people in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida? I think that’s somewhat of an open question honestly,” Smith said.
Schrimpf declined to comment on the prospects of Kasich running for his party’s nomination in 2016.
“I think that he and the party are focused on 2014,” he said.
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