What’s the Matter with Ohio?
It may fail to pass union reforms that a majority of voters support.


In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R.) rallied Republicans in the state legislature to limit collective bargaining by public employees. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R.) coaxed a Democrat-led state legislature to increase public employees’ share of their health-care and pension costs. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R.) secured merit pay for public-school teachers.

But in Ohio, a bill containing all these reforms is headed for defeat in a referendum on November 8. According to an October 25 poll by Quinnipiac University, 57 percent of Ohioans oppose the bill, while 32 percent support it. Meanwhile, its most prominent advocate, Gov. John Kasich (R.), is unpopular: Fifty-two percent disapprove of his performance; 36 percent approve.

Why might the Ohio GOP lose this referendum? Buckeye Republicans say they miscalculated.

First, the legislation is too complicated. Senate Bill 5 is a 302-page conservative wish list: a ban on public-employee strikes, a tightening of standards for union elections, and the elimination of automatic pay hikes, among other things. At first, Governor Kasich wanted to pass these reforms piecemeal — tuck a few into the state budget, add some more by separate legislation.

“We did not want to do the whole thing at once,” says William Batchelder (R.), speaker of the state house. “The governor and I agreed on that.”

Republicans control both houses of the legislature, but legislators have minds of their own. In February, state senator Shannon Jones (R.) introduced the catchall legislation, and state-senate Republicans, confident with their two-thirds majority, muscled it through the chamber. By March, the bill was passed, and the opposition was ready: Senate Bill 5 was a power grab — a pilfering of workers’ rights.

“We let the Democrats control the message,” state senator Keith Faber (R.) laments.

To Republicans’ chagrin. Ohioans support many of the reforms in the bill. For instance, 49 percent agree with instituting merit pay, and 57 percent agree with requiring public employees to pay 10 percent of their wages toward pensions. But as Republicans prepared a budget in the spring, union forces prepared a counterattack. By July, they had collected enough signatures to put the law on the ballot in November.

In August, the state Ballot Board finalized the ballot language (“Shall the law be approved?”), and Republicans again faltered. The board comprises two Democrats, two Republicans, and the secretary of state, Jon Husted (R.). One Republican member, Faber, argued that opponents of the bill should have to vote “Yes” on the referendum. “The other side marketed the referendum on the premise of repealing the bill,” Faber explains. “The question on the ballot should have been, ‘Shall Senate Bill 5 be repealed?’” What’s more, people tend to vote “No” on referenda when confused by its language, so this wording would have advantaged the Republican side. Over 80 percent of state referenda phrased in this manner fail, partly because of this bias.

In an attempt at evenhandedness, however, Husted proposed that the question require opponents to vote “No.” The past twelve referenda had followed this format, according to his office’s records. Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Husted, points out that the vote on the language was unanimous. But Faber explains that because of the board’s structure, Husted had the deciding vote, so once his position was clear, it voted as a unit.

Then there is the campaign. Opposition forces, under the banner “We Are Ohio,” had raised $30.6 million for their effort — and had spent $26.3 million — by the latest filing deadline. (Teachers’ unions alone had contributed $9.7 million.) By contrast, the pro-reform group, “Building a Better Ohio,” had raised only $7.6 million and had spent just $6 million.

“The teachers’ unions are the biggest contributor to their campaign,” notes Connie Wehrkamp, spokeswoman for Building a Better Ohio. “Teachers don’t have a say in whether they’re going to pay their dues; they’re forced to pay them. They can opt out of the union, but they still have to pay ‘fair share’ fees. If we could go out and assess people $54 apiece just to fight an issue, we’d have more resources. But we have to raise money the old-fashioned way.”

Although the pro-reform group’s performance seems underwhelming, it may be impressive for a referendum campaign in an off-year election. Supporters of another issue on the ballot had raised only $255,000 since July, while their opponents had accumulated just $5,100. And despite grumbles among conservatives that Building a Better Ohio was slow in getting organized, Robert Bennett, the Republican national committeeman for the Buckeye State, pooh-poohs their complaints: “You hear that on every campaign.”

And Republicans aren’t conceding the race. “We will have made over 1 million phone calls over the course of the campaign in support of both ballot issues,” says Kevin DeWine, chairman of the state party. “We’ve hired ten full-time staffers to ensure these issues are passed, and we are on track to knock on more than 100,000 doors.”

But one disadvantage is particularly acute: John Kasich. Many Republican governors are currently unpopular because of the economy, but Kasich is especially so. (Walker and Christie, for instance, have seen their approval ratings rise in recent months.) Kasich has earned a reputation for prickliness, thanks in part to occasional outbursts, such as when he called a policeman an “idiot” in a pep talk to state employees.

According to a source familiar with the situation, the pro-reform forces commissioned a focus group led by Frank Luntz that found Kasich’s association with the bill was toxic. In recent weeks, Kasich has taken to the hustings in support of the bill, and unsurprisingly, his critics say, its support has plummeted even further. What’s more, the source says there’s friction between Kasich and Secretary Husted, who have differed on legislative strategy for these reforms. (Jones allegedly worked with Husted’s office in drafting her legislation.)

McClellan denies any tension: “I know the secretary has been asked that before. He has stated that he has a lot of respect for the governor.”

And Bennett thinks the staff may be the problem. “I have not detected anything that the principals have disagreed on, but if you could put tape over the staff’s mouths, it might be better.”

Bennett also defends Kasich: The governor and the legislature have filled an $8 billion deficit without raising taxes. “When Mitch Daniels was doing the things that were necessary he was very unpopular for two years,” Bennett says. “Kasich will be unpopular for a few years, but as his programs take hold he’ll be fine in four years.”

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate of National Review Online.