Battle for Ohio Heats Up As Union-Busting Vote Nears
With less than three weeks until the Nov. 8 election, the campaigns for and against Issue 2 are seeking to persuade voters to join their cause.
Supporters and opponents of Issue 2 are waging full-scale war to win your vote.
In union-strong Cleveland, police officers, fire fighters and teachers march through the suburbs, knocking on doors and telling voters that Issue 2 will undermine their way of life, union member or not.
In Southern Ohio, voters file into town halls to hear conservatives say Issue 2 is necessary if Ohio’s local governments are to keep taxes down.
Issue 2 is the ballot referendum that will decide the fate of Senate Bill 5, Gov. John Kasich's controversial proposal to restrict collective bargaining for Ohio's government workers. Fighting the law is We Are Ohio, a coalition of union-backed groups. Supporting the issue is Building a Better Ohio, a GOP-backed group.
The fighting is fierce and millions of dollars are being spent. Politicos are watching carefully to see what, if anything, the race will say about the psyche of Ohio voters heading into next year's presidential election.
While Building a Better Ohio says more people are supporting Issue 2 as they learn the facts -- polls show support has grown but still lags behind the opposition -- political observers say the union- and Democratic-backed opponents have displayed more firepower so far.
That's because this is a back-against-the-wall, life-or-death fight for them. It's an ideological battle for both sides, but also deeply personal for opponents who believe the law will undermine their livelihood.
“This is Armageddon for public-sector unions,” said Brent Larkin, the former long-time editorial director for the Plain Dealer. “There is no tomorrow if Issue 2 passes.”
On the Ground, Through the Airwaves
Political campaigns are fought with boots and cable boxes.
On both counts, We Are Ohio seems to have the advantage so far.
Observers say they are winning the ground game -- that's what a Ohio professor told the New York Times recently -- and are spending more on TV spots than Issue 2 supporters, according to reporting by the state's largest newspapers.
According to the article, We Are Ohio spent $1.92 million to buy television spots in Ohio's major markets while Building a Better Ohio has spent more than $741,000. A group called Make Ohio Great has spent $441,000 on ads that feature Gov. John Kasich and talk about reforms but don't specifically mention Issue 2 or Senate Bill 5.
We Are Ohio gave reporters numbers that showed higher spending levels -- $5.4 million by opponents and $4 million by supporters -- but the disparity remained.
Building a Better Ohio says it's raising the money it needs to win. The group has not yet revealed the amount of its war chest or who its donors are.
One trend working against Issue 2 is that big business, usually a stalwart supporter of GOP-backed initiatives, appears to be taking a less obvious role in this fight.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce and pro-business groups have endorsed Issue 2 and are actively supporting it, but most CEOs are not likely to publicly embrace it, said Paul Allen Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
For one thing, Issue 2 is not about private-sector employees, so there is less incentive. It's also very controversial.
"The advantage of the Chamber is that it's not really clear where that money comes from," Beck said. "Many corporations don’t want to alientate people, particularly on an issue so polarizing as Senate bill 5."
Larkin said that businesses in Ohio have worked hard to make peace with their unions and that they don't want to stir up trouble over something that won't directly affect the bottom line.
Beck said another issue is that Issue 2 impacts police and firefighters, often people with a more conservative outlook. This issue divides their allegiances.
"Some of them are long-term Republicans, and they are furious," Beck said.
A 'Powerful Message'
Still, Issue 2 supporters can't be counted out. Larkin said they have a "powerful message" that should not be under-estimated.
The supporters have been running a door-to-door campaign and phone banks and reaching out to voters across the state, said Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for Building a Better Ohio.
She acknowledged that the opponents had a head start, but disagreed that they have the edge.
"I think the more people learn about Issue 2, the more they support it," Wehrkamp said. "We are going to do everything we can to make sure people understand the issue and get the facts."
While the opponents have the backing of the unions, the supporters also have a powerful political apparatus behind them. A group called Make Ohio Great, which is connected to the influential Republican Governor's Association, is running ads in Ohio featuring Kasich championing the "reasonable reforms" of Issue 2.
The Ohio Chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, founded with the support of the influential Koch brothers, has been holding town halls throughout the state to urge a "yes vote."
"We’re going all over the state trying to educate citizens," said Rebecca Heimlich, the director of Americans for Prosperity Ohio. "We're explaining to them why, as taxpayers, they should care."
FreedomWorks, the influential Tea Party group, has created a "Yes for Jobs" campaign in Ohio. The organization says it has produced "tens of thousands" of campaign signs and door hangers that will be distributed throughout Ohio.
There are also many parts of Senate Bill 5 that are popular, and many of the supporters' ads focus on provisions that force public employees to pay more of their health insurance premiums and pensions like private-sector workers.
"I think most Ohioans look at their own situations and say it isn't too much to ask," Wehrkamp said.
Issue 2 supporters also take exception to the notion that their opponents have more support from government workers.
"Obviously, it's a tough issue for people to publicly step out and support," Wehrkamp said. "I think there is a group of silent supporters who really understand."
"The other side is using emotion to drive the debate but is failing to talk about the facts of the issue," she added. "More and more Ohioans see that the path we are on is unsubstainable."
'Line in the Sand'
Do-or-die rhetoric is common on the campaign trail for the Issue 2 opposition.
"Ohio is our line in the sand," Chuck Canterbury, president of the National Friends of Police, told police officers and firefighters before sending them into the streets of Strongsville, a Cleveland suburb. "We've got to win Ohio."
Put simply: The stakes are higher for Issue 2 opponents because its personal, not just ideological.
Ask the Coffee family. Jeff Coffee is a firefighter and Julie Coffee is a teacher. The couple's 11-year-old daughter Josie recently went canvassing in Kent with her father because she is worried about her parents' jobs.
“I feel I should support him in what he believes in," Josie said. "This would really hurt his job and my mom’s job."
We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas said the petition drive to get Issue 2 on the ballot mobilized legions of eager volunteers right out of the starting gate.
"We’ve been building from the ground up," Fazekas said. "When we talk about being a true grassroots organization, that’s actually the truth. We had to collect all those signatures to get on the ballot, and we did that."
Most voters will be exposed to the issue primarily through television ads.
Which likely means there will be lots of confused voters heading to the polls Nov. 8.
Political television ads are designed to distill a complex message by using strong symbols that will drive the most fervent supporters or opponents to the polls, said Beck, a political science professor.
A perfect example of such a symbol is Marlene Quinn, the Cincinnati great grandmother who was featured in an opposition ad, which was then used by the supporters for one of their ads. This has produced plenty of campaign outrage.
Manipulating your opponents symbols is a tactic used for as long as political campaigns have been around, Beck said.
But any voters who are hoping to learn the facts from the ads are likely to be disappointed.
“I find the whole campaign on both sides rather disappointing," he said. "It doesn’t really hit the key issues that are involved and, as a result, I think voters will go to polls responding to symbols and not the serious policy questions at stake."