When news broke last night that Gov. John Kasich’s collective-bargaining changes had been repealed by popular vote, the Left in Wisconsin rejoiced (even though it was clear the law was going down back in July).
Pro-union forces believe Kasich’s sound defeat gives them the momentum they need to move forward in a recall effort against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who implemented similar reforms in his state. Wisconsin doesn’t have a law allowing statutes to be overturned via public vote, so the Walker recall represents the whole enchilada for the state’s unions. “Ohio sent a message to every politician out there: Go in and make war on your employees rather than make jobs with your employees, and you do so at your own peril,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka after the vote on Tuesday night.
Yet there are substantial differences between the vote last night in Ohio and a recall effort against Scott Walker. To wit:
The Ohio vote was closely tied to the popularity of John Kasich, whose job-approval rating among Ohio voters currently stands at about 33 percent. Conservatives I have talked to in Ohio have told me that since passage of the bill, Kasich has grown cranky and obdurate, lashing out at unions and driving his unfavorables higher.
On the other hand, Scott Walker’s approval is hovering in the mid to high 40s, and he has managed to maintain his cool despite all the heat he has received nationally. During the worst times, I was actually critical of Walker’s almost creepy-calm demeanor, but Kasich is a good lesson in why he did it; calmly make your point as to why the law is working, and you avoid making enemies of those who are naturally inclined to support you.
Furthermore, the Ohio and Wisconsin laws are different. Walker wisely exempted police and firefighters from his law, fearing a backlash in the event of any kind of work stoppage. Kasich’s law included public-safety workers, allowing unions to run ads scaring people into thinking their houses were going to burn to the ground if the law were allowed to go into effect.
Ironically, Walker took a lot of heat from the Left for exempting public-safety workers from his bill. Democrats accused him of paying off the police unions, some of which supported his campaign. Yet now it is clear why his move so frustrated the Left — it made him seem more reasonable, and therefore harder to beat when this inevitable recall effort got underway. They wanted the harshest possible law to hang around his neck — instead, they got one that didn’t allow them to demagogue him out of office.
Also, in Ohio, people were voting against an idea, not a person. The vote was up-or-down on the law itself. In Wisconsin, Democrats actually have to run a candidate against Walker — and the names being bandied about as possible challengers feature a number of retreads and has-beens of liberal politics. A referendum can’t go out and speak for itself; Scott Walker can. And he only has to be better than the candidate they put before him.
To that end, Walker can raise money to defend himself; in Ohio, unions outspent the pro-SB5 forces by a 3-to-1 margin, raising over $24 million by mid-October. Scott Walker can raise funds in unlimited amounts while the recall effort is under way, and he is signaling that he will almost certainly be able to match the tens of millions the unions are likely to pay for his scalp.
Finally, the law in Wisconsin has taken effect, and the state’s citizens have seen that it hasn’t affected their services at all. A recent poll by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (my employer) showed that 71 percent of the state’s residents think public schools have either improved or stayed the same following Walker’s reforms. Story after story after story has surfaced showing school districts saving teacher jobs and cutting costs without any negative effect on education. Ohio never got to see the benefits of Kasich’s law.
This all doesn’t mean Scott Walker is out of the woods; it does mean that last night’s vote in Ohio wasn’t necessarily a sign of future union momentum in Wisconsin. In fact, in August’s state-senate recall elections, many of the GOP senators who supported Walker’s collective-bargaining changes received the highest margin of victory that they had in the last several election cycles. If Walker plays it right, he could actually survive with a clear mandate to further reform public-employee salaries and benefits. It appears the public unions are willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to find out if he can.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.