Columbus, Ohio – A year after Republicans swept legislatures across the country, voters in Ohio delivered their verdict Tuesday on a centerpiece of the conservative legislative agenda, striking down a law that restricted public workers’ rights to bargain collectively.
The landslide vote to repeal the bill — 62 percent to 38 percent, according to preliminary results from Ohio’s secretary of state — was a slap to Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican who had championed the law as a tool for cities to cut costs. The bill passed in March on a wave of enthusiasm among Republicans fresh from victories. A similar bill also passed in Wisconsin.
Across the country, several other Republican-backed measures were also dealt setbacks, including a crackdown on voting rights in Maine.
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In Mississippi, voters rejected an amendment to the State Constitution that would have banned virtually all abortions and some forms of birth control by declaring a fertilized human egg to be a legal person.
The Ohio vote gave a new lease on life to public sector labor unions in Ohio, which had been under tremendous pressure to get the bill repealed. Failure would have brought not only the loss of most of their bargaining rights, including the right to strike, but would also have called into question what had long been their central strength — their ability to organize and deliver votes.
Labor leaders said their victory contained an important message for Republicans.
“Attacking education and other public employees is not at all what the public wants to see,” said Karen M. White, political director of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector union. “It should resonate with politicians that they’ve gone too far.”
At a news conference Tuesday night, Mr. Kasich congratulated the winners and said he would assess the situation before proposing any new legislation. “It’s time to pause,” he said. “The people have spoken clearly.”
When asked about the people’s message, Mr. Kasich said, “They might have said it was too much too soon.”
Labor’s victory in this important swing state comes a year before the presidential election, and policy makers and political strategists will be studying ballot initiatives for clues to voter sentiment in 2012.
The election in Ohio provided an opportunity for the president’s network of supporters, Obama for America, to test its organizational ability and revive its enthusiasm after a bleak year for Democratic activists. Volunteers for the president’s re-election campaign fanned out across the state for weeks, urging voters to stand against the new law limiting collective bargaining.
The issue did not break entirely along party lines. The supporters of the law did not receive as much outside help, with the Republican presidential primary campaign in full swing.
Even when Mitt Romney, a leading candidate, visited Ohio recently, he said he was not sure where he stood on the issue. A day later, he said he stood against the labor unions.
Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the result as a predictor for 2012. The law has been highly controversial in Ohio, even among groups like firefighters and police officers that traditionally vote Republican, and a vote cast against the law does not translate directly to a vote for President Obama.
“This is not a purely partisan issue,” said Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University. “It has merits on its substance.”
The real question, he said, will be how independents voted. In a warning to Democrats, a largely symbolic measure against Mr. Obama’s health care law was among the ballot initiatives that passed.
Republicans who watched the campaign on the union measure said it was doomed from the start. The law was a frontal assault on one of the most sacred principles for Democrats: the right of organized labor to collectively bargain. Defeating the repeal campaign would have required near-universal Republican support, which was not there because some registered Republicans opposed the law.
“This really is a core value, and the bill was out of step with that value,” said one Republican strategist, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to be seen as criticizing his party’s position.
Labor fought harder, observers said, because its stakes were higher. We Are Ohio, the main group that opposed the law, poured about $30 million into the campaign, said Melissa Fazekas, the group’s spokeswoman, and had about 17,000 volunteers out over the weekend knocking on doors to persuade residents to go out and vote. The main group supporting the bill, Building a Better Ohio, said it spent just under $8 million.
“What we were actually fighting for was our livelihood,” said Monty Blanton, a retired state employee and union worker who said he spent 14 hours a day knocking on doors in southeast Ohio in the last month. “We’ve been to places you had to get to with a four-wheel drive.”
Labor organizers also had the advantage of appealing to a current of national disgust.
“Who are you going to trust, the politician who is more worried about whether his hair is parted correctly, or the firefighter and policeman in your neighborhood?” said Jim Gilbert, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Columbus.
It is unclear whether the episode will cause Republicans to suffer at the ballot box next year. Bill Capretta, a registered Republican and a retired police officer in Columbus, said that while he did not think he would vote for Mr. Obama, whose health care law he opposes, he was frustrated with Republicans for blocking the president’s efforts.
“When you just say ‘No, no, no’ because you want this guy to be a one-term president, I have a problem with that,” he said.
Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Washington, and Steven Greenhouse from New York.