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Mitt on Ohio's Union Fight: A Flip Too Far?

The fight to repeal Ohio's Senate Bill 5, the sweeping anti-union law signed this past spring by Republican Gov. John Kasich, has been intense but largely off the national radar leading up to the state's referendum on Nov. 8. Who'd have guessed that it would be Mitt Romney who, with his finely tuned sensors for the prevailing political breeze, would announce to the rest of the country that the law's defenders were in trouble?

Romney came to Ohio Tuesday for a fundraiser in Cincinnati. While in the state, he stopped by a phone bank making calls on behalf of upholding the new law (Issue 2) and Issue 3, which would allow Ohioans to opt out of the insurance mandate in the new health care law. As he was leaving the center, Romney told Republican Party officials accompanying him that his presence there does not necessarily reflect support for the ballot measures. “I’m not saying anything one way or the other about the two ballot issues,” he said. “But I am supportive of the Republican party’s efforts here.” Pressed by reporters, Romney refused to budge. "I am not speaking about the particular ballot issues,” he said, according to CNN. “Those are up to the people of Ohio. But I certainly support the efforts of the governor to reign in the scale of government. I am not terribly familiar with the two ballot initiatives. But I am certainly supportive of the Republican Party’s efforts here.”

If that distinction leaves you confused, it infuriated conservatives, who believe that laws like SB 5 are badly needed to get state budgets in line. In June, Romney expressed strong support for the effort to uphold SB 5, which diminishes public workers’ collective bargaining power, eliminates their right to strike and does away with binding arbitration, while forcing them to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance costs and at least 10 percent of their pension contributions. And Romney has hardly missed a chance to lambaste organized labor on the trail so far, speaking out for a bill to turn New Hampshire into a right to work state and joining the Republican pile-on against the National Labor Relations Board. For him to now hedge on the Ohio law was, to many conservatives, the clearest sign yet in this campaign of Romney's distressing lack of reliability on core principles. As the Club for Growth put it in a statement: "The big problem many conservatives have with Mitt Romney is that he’s taken both sides of nearly every issue important to us...He thinks that collective bargaining issues should be left for states to decide if he’s [in] Ohio, but he took the opposite position when he was in New Hampshire. This is just another statement in a long line of statements that will raise more doubts about what kind of President Mitt Romney would be in the minds of many Republican primary voters.”

One did not have to look for a possible explanation of Romney's hedge on Issue 2 -- a Quinnipiac poll came out hours earlier showing support for repeal by a 57-32 percent margin, with a majority of independents in favor of repeal. For a candidate who is already thinking ahead to a general election in which Republicans dearly hope to reclaim Ohio, those numbers were apparently enough to make Romney decide, yet again, to try to thread an awfully thin line. "Americans are tired of politicians who change their beliefs to match public opinion polls," Rick Perry's campaign declared. "Mitt Romney needs to realize that when you try to stand on both sides of an issue, you stand for nothing.”

I checked with some of my sources in Ohio to gauge their reaction to Romney's equivocation on the issue that has gripped their state. Mark Munroe, the GOP chairman in Mahoning County, was just heading out the door for an evening debate over the referendum. He said he had not studied Romney's exact comments but chalked them up to a politician's prudence. "I suppose he’s trying to be cautious," Munroe said. Harry Meshel, the former state senate president and chairman of the state Democratic Party, was more caustic. "You just can’t win trying to travel on two sleds," he said.

The irony is that people on both sides of the fight are less sure that it's locked up than Romney seemed to be in deciding to back off his support for the law. Union officials in Ohio are proud of their considerable ground game and gratified by Ohioans' reaction against the law. "It says a lot about what Ohioans want to see the recovery look like: sacrifice for all, prosperity for all," said Mike Gillis with the Ohio AFL-CIO. But labor officials are worried that repeal is polling better than it will fare at the ballot box because pollsters are framing the matter much more clearly than the endless, confusing wording of the ballot measure. They are also bracing for a final wave of ads in support of the law, paid for by outside groups that have taken a stake in the fight, such as Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. "You never know what they’re going to come out with," said Gillis.

Munroe, the state GOP chairman, said he hoped such a big wave was coming because so far, the pro-repeal forces have been swamping his side in the pro-labor Mahoning Valley. "There are enormous amounts of union money pouring into the valley," he said. "I'm hopeful that in the last two weeks of the campaign voters will start to hear the other side of the message, because when they do hear the other side of the message, I think it will be a lot closer than people think."

Among those sure the poll got it right is John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University. A longtime observer of labor politics in the state, he believes that the coalition of unions and sundry progressive groups fighting for repeal have caught a globe-spanning wave of protest against economic inequities. Because the Ohio law was even more sweeping than the one passed in Wisconsin (for one thing, it took on firefighters and police officers), the backlash has been even stronger, he said. And unlike a fight faced by a specific union or industry, a battle involving all 350,000 public employees produces resistance in every corner of the state. This is why conservative groups have yet to pour in as much money as the pro-repeal forces feared: they can tell it's a losing fight. "I was predicting an air war versus a ground war, but that hasn’t happened," said Russo. "What’s happened is Rove and Crossroads are not going to throw good money after bad. They know they can't win this election so a lot of the energy has gone out of the fight."

From the standpoint of the general election, Russo said, Romney was smart to back away from SB 5. Kasich narrowly won Ohio last fall by claiming crucial swing groups like suburban women. Republicans are now at risk of losing many of those same women with SB 5, not least schoolteachers who voted for Kasich but are upset about the new law. "Romney’s doing the right thing, doing the drive-by showing he’s supporting Republicans but that he's not going to go for an issue that's going to get clobbered," Russo said. "He needs a lot of the independents who are going to decide Ohio. Crazy as [the equivocation is], it makes perfect sense based on where the state is going." 

The big question, Russo said, is how much Democrats will be able to carry the momentum from the repeal push into next year, when both Barack Obama and Senator Sherrod Brown (who remains quite popular in the state) will be on the ballot. This depends partly, he said, on how much Kasich pushes to implement individual parts of SB 5 if it is repealed. There's also a chance that the labor-left coalition could rally again around a voter-ID measure that will be on the ballot next year, but that's only if unions decide to make that a priority. "These coalitions are fragile," Russo said. "Can Obama hold it together?"