Showdown in Ohio

[This article originally ran as the cover story in the November 7th issue of Human Events newspaper.]

With Ohio voters heading to the polls November 8, pundits and pols nationwide are studying the huge political story in the Buckeye State: Whether the landmark economic and labor reforms enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed into law by GOP Gov. John Kasich earlier this year will go down in flames, victims of Big Labor’s massive money machine.

The Kasich-backed reforms include elimination of binding arbitration for state government employees, a requirement that government employees pay 15% of the premiums for their health insurance, and ending the right of state employees to strike.  With all of the measures lumped into one ballot initiative known as Issue Two, voters must vote “yes” on Two to maintain them as law and “no” on Two to take them off the books.  The most recent Quinnipiac Poll showed that, among likely voters, the “no” forces were leading by a margin of 57% to 32%.

“It’s a chilling thought to consider what will happen if Issue Two is defeated by a significant margin,” Matt Mayer of the Ohio-based Buckeye Institute told HUMAN EVENTS. “Any of the next steps in Gov. Kasich’s agenda—reform of education funding or reform of government employees’ pensions—are going to be put in doubt.  Republican legislators will be very reluctant to take up measures like that, already fearing retribution from the unions at the polls in 2012.”

Other observers of Ohio politics have suggested that, very much as the battle over Gov. Scott Walker’s state pension reforms fueled the current attempt to recall the Wisconsin GOP chief executive, a successful drive by organized labor to upend Kasich’s reform s next week could lead to an all-out effort to defeat the Republican governor in 2014.  And the “dress rehearsal” for that move to oust Kasich would obviously give a strong boost to Democratic efforts to deliver Ohio’s 18 electoral votes to Barack Obama in 2012. 

Why Did They Lump Everything Together?

When HUMAN EVENTS talked to Gov. Kasich in May of this year, the Republican-controlled legislature was in the process of passing his reform package.  Angry about the proposal to require public employees to pay a greater share of their health insurance, demonstrators crowded outside the state Capitol in Columbus with placards and chants denouncing “Ka-SICK!” 

“Look, the average donation from city workers toward their healthcare is 9% and the average donation from private sector workers is 23%,” Kasich told us.   “I’d say for state employees to pay 15% is pretty fair.”

Republican legislators who spoke to us on background said that while they agreed with and supported all of Kasich’s reforms, it was not such a wise strategy to lump them all together in one piece of legislation that they correctly predicted would then become a big target for opponents.

“Look, I know Democrats who agree with the governor and us on state employees’ paying more for their health care,” a GOP legislator who requested anonymity told HUMAN EVENTS.  “But putting an end to binding arbitration in the same package invited an assault from all of the unions—including the policemen’s unions, which almost always back Republicans, and the firefighters, who back us most of the time.”

Although the state senate and house of representatives passed and Kasich signed the reform package, Ohio law gives voters the last word on legislation through the initiative process.  State employee unions promptly went to war, gathering 1.3 million signatures on petitions, five times as many as state law requires to place repeal of the controversial new measures on the November ballot.  The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees—with more than 350,000 members throughout Ohio—have made defeat of the change in healthcare premium payments their top priority.

The efforts to undo the Kasich reforms are being run by a group known as “We Are Ohio,”—or, as one conservative in Columbus put it, “a clearing house for Big Labor’s big bucks.”  So far, more than $30 million has been pumped into the group from state and national unions, including the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.  In contrast, the group urging a “Yes” vote on Issue Two, Building a Better Ohio (which is led by Beth Hansen, who is on leave as Kasich’s chief of staff ) has raised only $9 million. 

Closer Than Polls Say—And Not Dead

But even as the polls and money point to a defeat of Issue Two and thus a setback to Kasich and the Republicans, there remains a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty among its opponents.  Last week, the Washington Post reported that an internal memo from a labor-backed group warned that polls on the initiative are “flawed” and that the fight could go either way.

“Those predicting a blowout for our side are basing their analysis on flawed public polling samples,” concluded the memo circulated by Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the labor-funded Progress Ohio group,.  As the Post reported, “Modeling turnout for an off-year ballot initiative is notoriously difficult.  This is especially true in a state like Ohio where polling on ballot initiatives has been very unreliable.”  Specifically, the memo referred to three recent Ohio ballot initiatives in which polls were off by wide margins: a 2004 same sex marriage ban, a 2005 election reform measure and a 2009 measure to build casinos.”

All told, even organized labor concedes that  defeating Issue Two, thus embarrassing Gov. Kasich and making national political hay is by no means a “done deal.”  If there is ever a time and a reason for conservatives nationwide to focus their energies on a particular cause, the place is Ohio and the time is clearly now. 

But even if Issue Two goes down, conservatives see the beginning of a fight rather than the end.  Many Republican legislators believe that if labor emerges triumphant next week, the reform fights on issues such as the health insurance premiums paid by state employees or an end to binding arbitration can be fought for again—albeit this time as individual measures rather than  as parts of a complex package.  As State House Speaker and longtime conservative activist Bill Batchelder told HUMAN EVENTS:  “Gov. Kasich and I are not the kind of people who go home and hide in the basement.  If Issue Two loses but still does reasonably well, we will have no problem picking up the pieces and running them again.”