Ohio Issue 2: Gov. John Kasich To Face Little Long-Term Damage If Referendum Fails, Experts Say

With opinion polls showing Ohio's controversial law against collective bargaining heading for defeat in a Nov. 8 referendum, experts said that Gov. John Kasich and state Republicans will face a short-term defeat, but will not likely see much long-term damage.

The bill passed following Republican gains in Ohio in the 2010 election, including control of the state legislature, the governorship and every statewide office. Though it was not a top issue in Kasich's battle against former Gov. Ted Strickland last year, the collective bargaining bill was the first big issue out of the gate for the GOP.

"I think it is a classic example of over-reaching," said Paul Alan Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. "There was very little word on this during the campaign. Most voters weren't giving a mandate to the governor to change the nature of collective bargaining in Ohio."

Kasich has been a strong champion of the new law -- Senate Bill 5 -- which he signed earlier this year to change rules governing public employees in local government. The law includes a ban on collective bargaining for benefits, along with employee contributions to pensions and health benefits. Labor unions and Democrats used a provision in the state constitution to force a statewide referendum on the law, creating a vote on Issue 2 on the upcoming ballot. Kasich has been campaigning statewide in an effort to avoid overturning the law.

An Oct. 19 poll from Public Policy Polling showed S.B. 5 heading toward defeat by a margin of 56-percent to 36-percent. Polls throughout the race have had the anti-S.B. 5 group ahead.

While Kasich has been a strong supporter of the bill, observers don't see the referendum as a make or break on his governorship. Kasich's popularity has been sinking in a recent poll, which John Green, the executive director of the Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron, said is not overly tied to Issue 2. He noted that Kasich has been governing in a bad economy.

"I think we have to be careful with calling this a 'must win,'" he said.

Green said that Kasich still has three years left in his term and other factors will guide his long-term popularity and reelection chances in 2014.

With the entire state House and half the state Senate up in 2012, observers said Republicans could see an impact in retaining control of the legislature, but noted many circumstances will come into play.

Green said that Republican legislators in Democratic-leaning districts could face tougher campaigns in 2012. Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State, said that redistricting has given the GOP an edge in legislative seats, which he said will help the party in 2012.

Asher noted that the future of collective bargaining could also play a role, saying that Republican legislators could reshape S.B. 5 in the event of a voter defeat, crafting a new bill to keep in parts of the law that have been popular in polls -- namely the health care and pension payments.

Asher said in the event that S.B. 5 is not overturned, the Republicans will possibly see it as a mandate to try new laws as part of their reform campaign. He said Democrats have more at stake in the vote.

"If labor and the Democrats are successful it will give them a greater sense of optimism," he said.

While observers do not see the bill as a referendum on Kasich, labor leaders disagree.

"This is what he wanted," said Harriett Applegate, the executive director of the North Shore AFL-CIO in Cleveland. "He was the driver behind all of this."

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor is not focused on the impact of Issue 2 on his legacy or on the 2014 election. Nichols said Kasich is more focused on the management of the state.

"That's rhetoric and for pundits to focus on," Kasich spokesman he said. "What we are focused on is bringing jobs to Ohio. It's never been about politics for us. It's about getting Ohio out of the ditch."

This article was written in collaboration with Christopher Mazzolini, the editor of Solon Patch in Ohio.