When Republicans won control of state legislatures and governorships from Florida to Maine to Ohio last fall, voters seemed to have steered a sharply different course from the one chosen in the Democratic triumph of 2008.
But in two weeks, the Ohio ballot will give Buckeye State voters the chance to change course yet again, at least in one 2012 battleground.
A ballot measure called Issue 2 will allow voters to uphold or repeal law, Senate Bill 5, enacted last spring by the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. John Kasich that limits the ability of public employee unions to collectively bargain.
The law also requires performance-based pay for most public employees, limits accrual of vacation time and requires public employees to pay 15 percent of the cost of their health care benefits.
Unlike Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s similar effort to curb union power prompted recall efforts against GOP lawmakers who supported him, in Ohio the question is being put directly to the people.
A new Quinnipiac Poll released Tuesday showed that 57 percent of Ohio voters oppose Issue 2, while 32 percent favor it. If Issue 2 is defeated, the Senate Bill 5 will be repealed.
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney visited the Ohio Republican Party's phone bank center in Terrace Park, a Cincinnati suburb, Tuesday but sidestepped Issue 2, which has been dominating the political agenda in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
After being hounded by reporters on his way out of the Ohio GOP event, he stopped and answered questions on Issue 2 and another ballot measure on health care.
"Great to be here in Ohio today. I'm not speaking about the particular ballot issues," he said. "Those are up to the people of Ohio, but I certainly support the effort of the governor to rein in the scale of government."
He added, "I'm not terribly familiar with the two ballot initiatives, but I'm certainly supportive of the Republican Party's efforts here."
These remarks drew fire from Romney's rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in a message on Twitter said, "Ohio Gov. John Kasich is right...Stand with him to fight union excesses. Help make OH more competitive!!"
And Perry campaign communications director Ray Sullivan said, "Mitt Romney's finger-in-the-wind politics continued today when he refused to support right-to-work reforms signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich — reforms Romney supported in June. Americans are tired of politicians who change their beliefs to match public opinion polls. Mitt Romney has a long record of doing this on issues like government-mandated health care and the Obama stimulus."
Kasich pledged during the 2010 campaign that he’d eliminate the state budget deficit without raising taxes. “But they never discussed the specifics of how he was going to do that,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Looking to battle for Ohio's 18 electoral votes
A rejection of Issue 2 would be a rebuff to Kasich and perhaps an encouraging sign for Democrats and their labor union allies as they prepare to battle for Ohio’s 18 electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election.
Split in voters' views
The Quinnipiac survey showed an interesting split in voters’ views about public employees. Majorities said they oppose banning public employees from striking, oppose limiting collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, and oppose eliminating seniority as the sole factor in layoffs.
But majorities do support requiring public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance costs and to contribute ten percent of their pay towards their pensions.
“The parts of SB 5 that are popular are (state employees) contributing to the health care and retirement benefits. The governor’s argument that, ‘people in the private sector have to do this, too,’ has been a winning argument,” said Brown.
But he said the parts of SB 5 that have not been popular have been the parts limiting the ability of public employee unions to bargain with the state on behalf of their workers.
Ohio is more union-friendly state than the national average, with nearly 15 percent of the labor force represented by unions, compared to 11.9 percent nationally.
In recent speeches Kasich has urged voters to support Issue 2, but the Columbus Dispatch reported that he has also complained that “the media is transfixed on Issue 2. It's all you want to talk about, but Ohio's about more than that."
When Kasich ran in 2010, he said he wanted to re-examine the state law that gave public employees the right to strike and collective bargaining rights.
He seemed to aim his fire especially at teachers’ unions. “We need more school choice, we need to break the back of organized labor in the schools, and we need to turn our schools into institutions that excite our kids and teach them,” he said during the campaign.
The Quinnipiac survey suggests Kasich and his allies in the Legislature might have pushed beyond what most voters are willing to accept in curbing union power.
"Regardless of outcome, Gov. Kasich has already seen the political perils of balancing Ohio's budget on the backs of working people: he is one of the most unpopular governors in the nation and he has spent the last several months mired in a fight to defend an initiative that even 30 percent of Republicans oppose," said Lis Smith, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association.
But victory for Issue 2 on Election Day would suggest Kasich did not misread the 2010 mandate and that in an era of fiscal austerity voters do support union-curbing efforts.