How Kasich Can Win Ohio Again

In November 2011, I published a New York Times op-ed entitled “How Obama Can Win Ohio Again.” Now, with my pundit credentials firmly established (sic), I am opining that Ohio Governor John Kasich will win reelection in 2014. This could play havoc with Democrats’ hopes for the 2016 Presidential election.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are usually thought of as swing states that are gradually but decisively getting bluer.  But the 2010 midterm elections were a watershed for Republican governorships in those states. Four right-wing Republicans came to power and immediately mounted formidable attacks on traditional Democratic supporters, including unions, blacks, and women. Major political struggles ensued in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, but with very different results. Following the 2012 Presidential election, where all four states went for Obama, those attacks continued, especially on issues of immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in 2011, rust belt Democrats counterattacked.  Particularly important were mass mobilizations around collective bargaining changes and recall elections for state officials. While receiving most of the media attention, the Wisconsin actions did little but slow the state’s draconian labor law changes, though they did put Republican legislators on notice for the dangers of overreach.  The same was true in Michigan, where changes occurred on a piecemeal legislative basis. The mobilization in Ohio was more successful, resulting in a stunning repeal of anti-union legislation, SB5. Since then, Governor John Kasich and Ohio Republican legislators have scaled back direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining.

This year, Republicans legislatures have once again gone on the offensive in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, while Kasich is playing a somewhat different game in Ohio.  For example, after the 2012 Presidential election, Michigan Governor Richard Snyder extended the attack on organized labor and broke his promise not to enact a right-to-work law. Republican legislatures in all four states want to push their political advantage in hopes of turning at least two of these four rust belt states red in the 2016 elections. They are doing this by securing their base support on social issues such as abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage while continuing their attack on unions and voting rights.

Kasich has taken a more arms length approach than fellow governors on wedge issues and stayed away from anti-union legislation.  Several conservative Ohio legislators have attempted to push right-to-work legislation, but taking a cue from Kasich, Republican legislators did not provide legislative support for the initiative, and it died in Committee.  No doubt, the last thing that Ohio Republicans want in 2014 is a repeat of the 2011 mobilization that brought together labor and community groups and defeated SB5.

While attacks on labor have decreased, Kasich is touting Ohio’s improving economy. At the 2012 Republican Convention, where Obama’s economic policies were being trashed, Kasich gave a speech touting all the economic improvements, tax cuts, and job creation in Ohio and bragging that Ohio was a great place to do business. Party leaders didn’t much like the speech, but Kasich’s “enterprise” approach made sense. Ohio has seen a substantial but uneven economic recovery, in part due, ironically, to the continuing benefits of the stimulus package and auto bailout and the growth of the oil and natural gas industry. The result has been that Ohio’s economy grew faster than the national average, and since 2011 the unemployment rate has fallen below the national average.

Even though that economic growth has primarily benefited whites, and minorities continue to lag in the current economic recovery, Kasich might have race on his side in 2014. In Ohio and elsewhere, Republican have pinned their 2014 election hopes on attracting white working-class voters who didn’t participate in the 2012 Presidential elections. Washington Post exit polls showed that about half of Ohio voters fall into this category, and 42% voted for the President. Nationally, only 36% of white working-class voters supported Obama. If Obama brought black and Latino voters to the polls in 2012, Republicans like Kasich hope that they can prevail in 2014 because minority voters won’t show up. Obama won’t be on the ticket, Ohio urban centers are being depopulated, and the Supreme Court has largely gutted the Voting Rights Act.  All of that could depress minority turnout, making the white working-class vote statistically more important to Ohio Republicans.

Overall, Kasich’s strategy of avoiding major mobilizing issues and following traditional Republican fiscal conservatism has resulted dramatic increase in his approval ratings. So solid does Kasich appear that some potentially strong Democratic candidates, such as Richard Cordray, former governor Ted Strickland, and Representative Tim Ryan, have decided not to run against him. The Ohio Democratic Party has been left with a weak gubernatorial candidate, Ed Fitzgerald, a one-term Cuyahoga County Commissioner who some see as a position jumper. To make matters worse, the ODP is being led by the same apparatchiks whom many blame for the 2010 Republican sweep.  That, in turn, led to redistricting that will make it impossible for Ohio Democrats to gain control the legislature in this decade.

So what could go wrong for Kasich? He must keep the most conservative elements of his party under control.  Already this year, conservatives nationally and in Ohio have pushed laws that attack poor whites, seniors, and women. Cuts to food stamps and Medicaid primarily hurt whites, for example.  In Ohio, 65% of households receiving food stamps and 61% of those on Medicaid are white. Also, despite widespread public support for same-sex marriage and less restrictive abortion policy, new Ohio Republican legislation dramatically restricts abortions.  Republicans are also fending off challenges to Ohio’s Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Changes in voter registration, which would primarily affect minorities and seniors, could work against Kasich by sparking another round of organizing and resistance.  Finally, a political scandal like the one that dogged Ohio Republican candidates in 2006 could help Democrats campaign on a clean up government message. One may be brewing over the lack of transparency in Kasich’s privatization of Ohio’s job development agency.

Taken together, these conservative attacks, potential scandals, and union fears of right-to-work legislation following a successful reelection could make Kasich vulnerable to a broad mobilizing effort. But only if Ohio Democrats can develop a strong economic and legislative message and tap into Ohio’s organizing culture. Absent this, it seems likely that Kasich will win Ohio again. And if other rust belt governors follow suit and take a more moderate approach in the short term, this could mean problems for Democrats in 2014 and make the 2016 Presidential election much more competitive in these crucial states.

John Russo

Right-To-Work Laws and Working-Class Voters: Another Teachable Moment

As a professor, I am always interested in teachable moments. When it became apparent in late 2010 that Ohio Governor John Kasich planned to introduce legislation depriving public sector workers of basic bargaining rights, I told reporters that it was a teachable moment about the role of public sector workers. After all, they were the ones who made all other work possible.

Both organized labor and community groups quickly embraced the idea that Ohio Senate Bill 5 could be a teachable moment.  They launched a hugely successful campaign to put a referendum on the bill, Issue 2, on the November ballot, and then led the fight to persuade voters to oppose the issue and overturn the bill.  Kasich’s attack and the forceful response to it may make it possible for Obama to win Ohio in 2012,  despite economic conditions and 2010 election results that would seem to prime the state to swing to the right this time.

Another teachable moment has arrived now that Republicans have introduced Right-to-Work legislation in New Hampshire and passed it in Indiana.  Similar legislation may be on the way in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Such moves may well undermine the historic white working-class support of Republicans, and that could bode well for Obama’s re-election.

RTW legislation differs from past Republican attacks on unions. As labor historian Joseph McCartin has recently chronicled, while courting union endorsements and union voters, Republicans have pursued strategies that, over the last 30 years, have quietly undermined administrative agencies and government policies that facilitated the formation of unions.  The result has been the erosion and marginalization of organized labor and its ability to raise wages, improve workplace safety and health, and advance representative democracy not only in the workplace but in the body politic.

The current RTW legislation is a direct attack on organized labor and its ability to represent the economic and political interests of both the rank and file and those non-union workers whose wages and benefits are enhanced by employers to avoid unionization. No doubt, the role of unions in building and rebuilding economic security and the middle class, advancing workplace rights, and promoting political democracy will be a central part of the curriculum for this teachable moment.

All the current Republican candidates have refused opportunities to speak to union leaders.  Instead, they have signed on to the anti-labor agenda, including RTW legislation, proposed by conservative corporations, business groups, and donors.  Together with their other economic proposals, they have established a Republican brand that embraces and even celebrates a distorted sense of morality and inequality of income, wealth, and power.

But as Governors Kasich and Walker have found out, “as you sow so shall you reap.”  The fight against RTW proposals and their supporters will be particularly fierce in the battleground states, especially the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.  Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin consider those states crucial to Democratic chances in 2012. In addition, RTW initiatives have now put projected GOP states with relatively small labor movements, such as New Hampshire and Indiana, into play for 2012.

If RTW legislation inspires union members to support Obama in November, their family members are likely to follow suit. In New Hampshire & Indiana, about 10% of voters belong to unions, but union households make up about 20% of voters. This is smaller than in the Rust Belt battlegrounds, where 26% to 34% of voters belong to union households, but that 20% may still make a difference. Further, the effect of the anti-union push could also cross state borders by galvanizing labor and community activists from safe Democratic States into neighboring states in the 2012 election.  Supporters in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and even Washington State organized phone banks to support the fight against the Indiana RTW bill.

Republicans also forget that their attacks on unions can turn off long-time Republican voters.  In Ohio, the demonization of teachers as part of Issue 2 moved many Republican educators toward the Democrats.  Educators are now the single most unionized group of workers in the U.S., and many continue to react strongly to conservative attacks, both in states where they are being targeted and across the country.

Further, while conservatives may hope to undermine union political influence with RTW initiatives, they don’t understand the continuing power of unions to mobilize workers.  Kasich’s attack on public sector workers was overturned last year not because so many dollars flowed from unions into the Issue 2 campaign, though enough money was raised that We Are Ohio, the union-based organization that led the fight, is still spending the millions it has left.  What really mattered was the person-to-person, door-to-door effort.  Organizing, it turns out, still works.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by moderate Republicans, and many now believe that the party should not have taken this route.  Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have argued that the Republicans missed multiple opportunities to garner greater working-class and union support by crafting policies that, while socially conservative, would embrace “limited government pragmatism” that met the needs and aspirations of working people. They see many Republicans as having confused being “pro-market with being pro-business,” and failing to make a distinction between policies that “foster dependency and those that foster independence and upward mobility.”  Rather than directly attacking the very existence of union, they encourage the development of new forms of unionism that are better suited for the new economy and enhance employment opportunities and economic advancement.

Importantly, the Republicans seem to have confused anti-labor policy with real economic policy. Rather than pursue the kinds of moderate revisions suggested by Douthat and Salam, Republican leaders, cheered on by conservative corporate donors and lobbyists, have launched an attack on labor unions that may well lead to the reelection of President Obama and further weaken an already divided Republican Party.  Consequently Republicans, especially Michigan Governor Rick Synder and Governor Kasich, are not publically supporting initiatives by conservative groups, such as the effort by Ohioans for Workplace Freedom to put a RTW referendum on ballots this November. In the current conservative political environment, their silence is deafening.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Ohio Issue 2: A Different Kind of Campaign

This fall, for the first time, the issue of collective bargaining was placed directly before voters.  And when more than 61% of Ohioans voted to protect collective bargaining rights and rejected the arguments of the Governor they had elected just a year earlier and of groups like Citizen’s United, it was the workers who had been central in the campaign who announced the victory.  No politicians spoke on stage at the celebration event that night.  No labor leaders.  No national leaders.  It was instead the workers themselves who spoke the words of triumph at the victory party.  This was clearly a very different campaign.

The resistance began quickly over Ohio Governor John Kasich’s 302-page bill – Senate Bill 5 — that eviscerated public sector bargaining.  The extreme bill went even further than other states had dared to go: it would abolish binding arbitration, outlaw fair share provisions, declare strikes unlawful, and completely eliminate many key issues from collective bargaining, including health care plan design, privatization, and staffing levels. Thousands of public and private sector union members and their allies showed up for rallies and hearings at the statehouse.

After the Governor padlocked the doors of the People’s House and pushed the bill through, over 10,000 volunteers collected signatures on petitions to bring the issue to the ballot.  Those petitions filled a semi-truck that was the focus of a terrific parade, delivering the boxes representing Ohio voters’ commitment to worker justice to the Secretary of State’s office.  The mood was festive, proud, and industrial.  My wife (an AFSCME member), two of my daughters, and I marched behind the lawmakers who had voted against SB5.  The Ohio Secretary of State’s office had to stop the petitions from coming into their office until a structural engineer assured us that the office building floor could withstand the weight of the boxes of justice.

Community support grew throughout the campaign with the help of our Outreach Director Karen Gasper.  Much of that support came from churches across the state.  African-American churches brought their members to the polls for early voting.  A Youngstown Catholic Church sponsored a “Blue Mass” for the police, but the special service soon expanded to include other public servants all dressed in blue.  Many faith-based groups, including Lift Dayton and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cleveland, held educational forums that brought out scores of members and supporters.  Toledo worshipers held a large event to bring those of faith together in their efforts to defeat Issue 2.  The United Church of Christ spoke out forcefully in opposition to SB 5.  The Catholic Bishops posted social teaching on their website to educate Catholics about the issue.

The effort pushed forward to include student organizers on Ohio college campuses.  The bill would have gutted all collective bargaining rights for a large percentage of faculty, even as a potential strike at Youngstown State University and an organizing campaign at University of Akron during the campaign demonstrated the power of collective bargaining in higher education.

Safety forces pulled together to host anti-SB5 events throughout the state.  Rallies were held with incredible turnout rates in rural areas of Ohio.  Harley riders circled the Statehouse on their hogs.  Workers spoke out and wrote letters to the editors.  Elected officials who voted against Senate Bill 5 were especially helpful in many areas of the state, including some Republicans.  It was truly an 88-county campaign of working people and their allies pulling together in unity.

We did face some challenges to that unity. When Governor Kasich and his friends went after voters’ rights, many African-American leaders called upon labor to lead a citizen’s veto against what is being called the “Voter Suppression Act.” While still fighting SB5, a new coalition was built linking organized labor with African-American organizations in ways that I have never seen in Ohio.  SB5 volunteers circulated petitions fighting the voter suppression bill, and what had started as an obstacle to unity became the glue. By Election Day, 93% of African Americans voted to overturn SB5, according to a poll conducted by the AFL-CIO.

Throughout the petition drive and the campaign on Issue 2 (as SB5 was identified on the November ballot), the Ohio Democratic Party stood firmly on the side of workers.  The Party worked hard to collect signatures, recruit volunteers, and get out no votes on Issue 2.  The ODP brought out nearly 5,000 volunteers to add to the ranks recruited by labor and community organizations. It was an impressive effort that demonstrates the values of the Party, even in a nonpartisan election.

Of course, on the ground organizing is only one part of politics today.  The media campaign over SB5 was also worker-centered. Action-packed ads, produced by The New Media Firm, featured Ohio workers, citizens who explained why they valued those workers, and an ad featuring Ohio hero John Glenn urging Ohio voters to stand up for our “everyday heroes” by voting no.

One of those ads featured 78-year-old Marlene Quinn, who told the story of how her great-granddaughter was saved by Cincinnati firefighters.  The other side recognized the power of that story, so they sliced her words and added material to create an ad in which Quinn seemed to support Issue 2.  Thirty television stations pulled the offensive ad with the stolen, remixed story. .  Yet, even as the political firestorm coined “Grannygate” was burning, Governor Kasich expressed his support for the tactic.

The ads and mailers supporting SB5 were, to a large extent, made possible by outside money, though we will never know exactly how much or where it came from. Most groups supporting the bill will not disclose their funders. Undisclosed amounts of out-of-state cash poured in through groups such as Citizens United (the Citizens United) and the Alliance for American Future. The Alliance flooded the state with mail marked with a Virginia return address that was linked back to former Vice President Chaney’s daughter. The Ohio Liberty Council (a Tea Party group), the Republican Governor’s Association, and the Ohio Republican Party also jumped into the fray.

New media also demonstrated the intensity on our side.  The pro-Issue 2 “Building a Better Ohio’s” Facebook page had 4,368 likes and comments from 1,488 people.  Those numbers were dwarfed by the more than 100,000 likes and 10,847 comments on We Are Ohio’s page opposing SB5.  Our new media program yielded incredible support, including over 11,000 contributors.

In the end, more Ohioans cast votes against Governor Kasich’s top initiative than they did for Governor Kasich a year earlier.  It was a blow away election, with workers winning 61.3% of the vote, including the majority of the vote in 82 out of 88 counties. Participation was higher in this off-year general election than in any other in the history of Ohio.

While union members were incredibly supportive, with an overwhelming 86% showing their solidarity against SB5, 57% of independent voters stood with them.  An even stronger message to the Governor is that 30% of Republicans voted against Issue 2.  Indeed, 26% of those who voted for Kasich just a year ago voted no on Issue 2.

Ohio history suggests that the vote on Issue 2 might predict a larger change in the state’s political climate. In 1958 working people were also campaigning for voters to reject Issue 2.  That year, Issue 2 was a Right-to-Work law.  Two thirds of all Ohioans voted against that issue. Voters also tossed out all the elected officials who had supported the anti-union initiative. It was a clean sweep that tamed anti-worker Ohio politicians for years.  But one need not look back 50 years to know how these out of touch politicians might be punished now. Polls show that the majority of voters will punish legislators who continue to press issues that were in SB5, even the more “popular” parts of it.  Just look to this year’s council elections in Cincinnati.  All four council members who had supported Issue 2 lost their reelection bids.  Perhaps Governor Kasich is lucky that he doesn’t come up for reelection until 2014.

It does seem as if he may have heard the voters’ message. The week after Election Day, the Governor might have shown he is changing his approach; he reached an agreement with the largest state union after just a couple of sessions. The agreement freezes wages for three years but restores step increases and furlough days. He also started to talk more seriously about one of his key campaign issues – jobs.

John W. Ryan

John W. Ryan was first elected president of Cleveland area’s CWA Local 4309 in 1981 at age 21 and was later the principal officer of the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor; he served as senior consultant to We Are Ohio and is State Director for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

Timing Is Everything

Sometimes clichés become old clichés because they have enduring value.  Here’s one that puts the consequences of the 2010 election in perspective: “Timing is everything.”  That is because the Democrats didn’t just lose hundreds of important elections here in Ohio and across the nation, they lost the future as well.

Of course some may argue that I’m being far too pessimistic.  After all, we have elections every two years, and candidates always say that the next election is the most important one that’s ever been held.  Often such rhetoric is pure hyperbole.  But the truth is that there are elections and then there are ELECTIONS—like the one in 2010.

2010 was one of those elections because people around the country not only voted for candidates, they also decided who would control the process of drawing new state legislative and Congressional district lines based on the results of the just-concluded Census. And, as any student of American history will acknowledge, the party that draws the lines—that “holds the pencil” to use the vernacular–employing a combination of gerrymandering, state-of-the-art technology, and the exercise of raw political power almost always dominates public policy formation for the next decade, if not longer.

In case you haven’t noticed, the GOP won the pencil and the nearly limitless power that goes with it.

Was it just bad and/or dumb luck that caused the Democrats to catch a serious beating at the polls in this critical election?   Was it the brilliance of the GOP’s platform and marvelous campaigning that convinced working and middle-class Americans to once again vote against their own self-interest after two straight cycles in they seemed to have finally read and understood Thomas Franks’s seminal work, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Of course not.

Fact is, Democrats lost because Democrats—and particularly the Obama administration–blew it.  Bad policies, worse messaging, and disastrous strategic planning and execution enabled the GOP, pronounced dead in the wake of the Democratic deluge of 2008, to convince voters that liberalism had failed—even though the Obama administration’s policies were abhorred as much if not more by the left than the right.

It didn’t matter that Obama was not a liberal, however, because Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and other conservative talking heads along with the GOP House and Senate caucuses and the business community, managed to convince the electorate that he was.  As a result, working- and middle-class voters in Ohio and other states with high jobless rates blamed liberalism for their troubles.  On November 2 they voted in droves for Republicans who displayed their gratitude by launching an all-out attack against them on November 3.

In some years the GOP might have feared so quickly turning it guns on the constituency that resurrected them, Lazarus-like, from the political hereafter. After all, screw up the way the Dems had, and the folks who put you in could just as easily toss you out a short 24 months later.  Yet, despite the threat of swift retribution at the polls, the GOP charged on boldly, fearlessly, and in the case of new House Speaker John Boehner, often tearfully, promising to do things, including revising Social Security, that would inevitably enrage the working and middles classes.

That’s where the old cliché “Timing is everything” comes in.  The GOP rushed ahead because they had just won elections in state after state that would enable them to institutionalize their hold on power and make themselves practically impervious to the changing mood of the electorate.  They knew they could safely blast away because they held the pencil and with it the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts they could never lose—no matter how irate the voters might become in the years ahead.  They recognized that all things being equal, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t really be held accountable in most states until sometime in 2022, which gave them plenty of time to do what they damn well pleased.

While the CWCS is researching and will release in the spring an extensive study on the effect the 2010 election will have on reapportionment and redistricting and the policy making process  across the nation, Ohio serves as a prime example of what everyone else can expect. On November 2 the Democrats lost all statewide offices —  they had held three of four going into the election — and with them control of the Apportionment Board.  Governor-elect John Kasich—again, why wait until you’re actually in office when you know you’ve got the state by the throat—warned everyone to get on his bus or be run over by it.

Not surprisingly, everyone Mr. Kasich really cared about was already on his bus—it’s a limo really. After all, the guy was a director at Lehman Brothers.  The people who have to worry about being run over are public employees including police officers, firefighters, and teachers, poor families who depend on Medicaid for health care, building trades unions and their members, seniors, local governments and libraries that depend on a variety of revenue sharing dollars from the state, and just about anyone else who looks to government for help.

Look closer and you’ll see that there’s a little more method than just an aversion to government in the new governor’s madness.  He and the rest of the Republicans know that while holding the power to draw the lines is great, being able to defund the Democratic Party by essentially gutting one of its primary funding sources, public sector unions, is absolutely marvelous.  Go after the public sector by privatizing everything in sight and the next thing you know the Dems won’t have the money they need to run even moderately credible campaigns in the few legislative and Congressional districts that may be created in when they draw the lines.

Now there’s a recipe for cooking up a permanent majority both in Columbus and in Washington that’s hard to beat.

And that’s why timing is everything.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters