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Tuesday's Ohio vote could be first skirmish in 2012 presidential race

By Paul Sracic, Special to CNN
updated 11:00 AM EST, Mon November 7, 2011
Opponents of Senate Bill 5 rally inside the Ohio statehouse February 22. Voters will decide Tuesday whether to repeal the law.
Opponents of Senate Bill 5 rally inside the Ohio statehouse February 22. Voters will decide Tuesday whether to repeal the law.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ohioans will vote Tuesday on whether to repeal Senate Bill 5
  • Paul Sracic says the battle over the repeal could be first skirmish in 2012 election
  • He says unions and Democrats mobilized to repeal law restricting collective bargaining
  • Sracic: If the law is repealed, it may embolden and strengthen Obama's allies

Editor's note: Paul Sracic is chairman of the department of political science at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He is writing a book on the 1952 steel seizure case.

(CNN) -- On Tuesday, there will be a vote in Ohio that may turn out to be the first major skirmish in the 2012 battle for the White House.

At issue is a law known as Senate Bill 5. The law, passed by the Ohio legislature at the end of March, restricts the ability of public employees to engage in collective bargaining.

Even before the ink on Ohio Gov. John Kasich's signature on Senate Bill 5 had time to dry, public employee unions in Ohio and their allies began the process of gathering the signatures necessary to invoke a provision in the Ohio Constitution that allows legislation to be placed before the state's voters. Within a few months, Senate Bill 5 opponents had managed to collect nearly 1 million valid signatures, more than three times what they needed to place the law on the November ballot.

The campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5, led by a group called "We Are Ohio," quickly went national. For example, The National Education Association donated $2 million to We Are Ohio, while, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Communication Workers of American kicked in more than $1 million apiece.

As Election Day draws near, those who support Senate Bill 5 have also attracted out- of-state assistance. Citizens United, the group whose legal challenge led to the watershed 2010 Supreme Court campaign finance decision, spent $100,000 on pro-Senate Bill 5 commercials.

Ohio union vote could have 2012 effects

Why all this national interest in an Ohio issue? Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill was famous for saying that "All politics is local." Well, in Ohio, all politics is also national.

Ohio is the quintessential swing state. Although shrinking in population relative to the rest of the country (after the 2010 census, the Buckeye state lost two seats in Congress), Ohio's electoral vote total is seen by the Republicans and the Democrats as being both up-for-grabs, and crucial to putting together an electoral majority. It is no accident, therefore, that since becoming President, Obama has visited Ohio more than any other state.

Still, President Obama's laser-like focus on Ohio has yielded little in the way of political support for him or his party. During the 2010 midterm election, Democrats in Ohio were swept out of power. Republicans managed to capture the governor's mansion and every other statewide office, 13 of the state's 18 congressional seats (a gain of 5 seats), and a majority in the Ohio House of Representatives (they already controlled the Ohio Senate).

Republicans in Ohio and nationwide saw in the results of the 2010 elections a mandate to trim back government at all levels. Taking on public employee unions was a logical step in this plan.

Still, one can't ignore the fact that, in seeking to weaken public employee unions, the Republicans were also taking on the very groups who would be expected to bankroll Democrats in 2012. But if Senate Bill 5 was fueled as much by politics as by ideology, the approach may have backfired. Polls have shown Senate Bill 5 to be enormously unpopular.

Even the bill's supporters are not optimistic that it will survive Tuesday's vote.

The fear now among Republicans is not only that Senate Bill 5 will be repealed, but that organized labor in Ohio will emerge from this victory newly energized and better positioned to achieve its goals. This will not bode well for the GOP in 2012.

There is a fascinating historical parallel to all of this. Back in 1958, business owners in Ohio got together and placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the state's ballot that would have made Ohio a right-to-work state. The proposal was soundly defeated, with 60% of the voters rejecting the measure.

The voters of Ohio, however, did not just vote against the amendment; they also voted against the Republican Party that was seen to have backed the measure. In the election of 1958, the incumbent Republican governor, a longtime Republican senator and nearly every statewide Republican office holder went down in defeat.

Polls showing Senate Bill 5 losing by nearly the same margin as the 1958 right-to-work measure ought to be sending chills down the spines of Buckeye Republicans.

Of course, Gov. Kasich and the other statewide office holders who were elected in 2010 are not on the ballot this Tuesday, and in fact will not have to face the voters again until 2014. But there will be a Republican presidential candidate on the ballot next year. It will be interesting to see if history repeats itself. Since no one has been elected president in more than 50 years without winning Ohio, it may well be that vote to repeal Senate Bill 5 in Ohio helps determine who will be taking the presidential oath in January of 2013.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Sracic.

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