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Why Mitt Romney Is Losing Ohio

Those white working-class voters that supposedly won't support Obama? They have him up by 8 points in the polls.
 
 
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Why is Mitt Romney losing Ohio?

In a word: labor.

Those famed white working-class voters that pollsters love to obsess over, make up a large chunk of Ohio's electorate, and they're not happy with the Bain Capital-ist and his history of calling for the auto industry's bankruptcy, endorsing attacks on their collective bargaining rights, and his plans—or lack thereof—for the economy. Barack Obama may not look like them, but Romney, as many have said, looks like the guy who fired them. And despite Republican governor John Kasich trying to take credit for improvements in the state's economy, Ohioans think that Democrats are a better bet when it comes to jobs. So it's no wonder that Romney's behind by 8 points or so in Ohio.

Kasich, indeed, can probably take some of the credit for Obama's popularity (and Senator Sherrod Brown's maintaining a lead in the polls despite some $20 million spent against him by big outside groups). The former Lehman Brothers banker and Fox News commentator may not have been quite as famous for his attacks on unions as neighboring Wisconsin's Scott Walker, but his anti-collective-bargaining bill, Senate Bill 5, was actually defeated by a resounding majority—more votes against the bill in 2011, an off-year, than voted in 2010 to elect Kasich.

And unions haven't been the only target of Kasich's administration and the GOP-led state legislature. The “War on Women” has been as intense in Ohio as anywhere else in the country, with attempts to tighten abortion restrictions with a “fetal heartbeat” bill leaving Republicans especially unpopular with the state's women.

But Ohio's not a done deal yet; particularly as it's also been ground zero for attacks on voting rights, aimed as usual at Democratic-leaning voters, people of color, the elderly, and low-income folks. If 2004's election taught Ohio progressives anything, it was that they have to fight for every vote. Republicans have an impressive ground game to go with their voter suppression plans, and Democrats and labor will have to counter it with a get-out-the-vote operation that takes advantage of the best asset they have: organized people, newly energized and trained in grassroots politics from the SB5 campaign.

An Injury to One Is an Injury to All: Senate Bill 5 and Collective Bargaining

Scott Walker may have become the public face of Republican attacks on labor, but Ohio's bill actually took aim at a larger swath of the population. “It was tremendously overreaching,” Mike Weinman of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police told AlterNet of Senate Bill 5, noting that in Ohio the police and firefighters were included in the bill. And in part because of that, the state now has a more unified labor movement than many others. We Are Ohio, the umbrella organization for labor and community groups fighting the bill, included the FOP and firefighters' unions as well as teachers and other public workers.

“We took a very active role, much as we could, with We Are Ohio,” Weinman said, “A lot of this stuff was new to us, we hadn't really dealt with this type of issue before, so it's kind of different for us to sit at a table with all these folks. It worked out pretty well, but there was some apprehension there for a little while.”

“I think we won SB5 at the ballot box because people saw it as not fair,” Deb Steele, a longtime union and environmental organizer in the Columbus area, told AlterNet. Ohioans, she said, had an instinctive reaction to the idea of taking away union rights. “You can't force me to be in a union and you can't tell me I can't be in a union,” she said, is how Ohioans tend to feel.

One of the reasons that the campaign against SB5 was successful was that unlike Wisconsin, Ohio state law allowed activists to target the law directly, circulating petitions to get the issue on as a ballot initiative in 2011. It allowed organizations like the FOP to get involved without having to push conservative members to vote for Democrats; but it's also paid off for Democrats like Sherrod Brown, who stood up for labor and was rewarded with a rare endorsement from the FOP.

And though Obama noticeably stayed out of 2011's labor battles, Mitt Romney enthusiastically supported Kasich's attacks on public workers, telling reporters he was “110 percent behind” the measure. The national Fraternal Order of Police declined to make an endorsement in the presidential race, and Weinman pointed out that collective bargaining was part of the reason why. “It was quite remarkable,” Weinman said, “In his questionnaire Romney said that he was against collective bargaining, he was against pension systems.”

Pensions, of course, are under attack around the country as well, from the NFL referees to the Ohio police. “You've got these folks who are just ideologues who want us to go on these 401K plans and get rid of the pension plans altogether,” Weinman said.

And so the SB5 coalition remains active and the issue of union rights remains central in the state; groups are pushing the Orwellian-named “Workplace Freedom Act,” a no-rights-at-work bill that would defund unions by prohibiting the collection of representation costs from workers in union workplaces. In addition, We Are Ohio is involved with the Voters First effort to make Ohio's congressional redistricting process less blatantly partisan, and pushing back on efforts by the GOP secretary of state to restrict early voting (more on that below).

“You Didn't Build That”: Rescuing the Auto Industry and the Economy

As I write this, Sherrod Brown is holding a rally to celebrate the rescue of the auto industry in Middletown, hosted by International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Local 1943. Often referred to as the bailout of “Detroit,” the support given to the big automakers in the dark days of acute financial crisis had nearly as big an effect on Ohio, where, as Alec MacGillis noted in The New Republic, one in eight jobs is connected to the auto industry.

MacGillis asked Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz why Obama was doing so well:

 “It’s the bailout," he said. "It’s not just the Jeep plant in Toledo and that they build the Chevy Cruze in Youngstown. But more than that -- we have 88 counties, and in 82 of them there are supplier plants to the larger ones. When you start talking about 82 of 88 counties that have some sort of direct, literal, positive impact from this rescue, I think that on the margins has the ability to tweak the numbers.”

Romney, of course, famously wrote that the auto industry should be allowed to go bankrupt; while the deal that saved the car companies took money out of workers' pockets, at least it kept them working. Meanwhile downticket, Josh Mandel, the Republican Senate candidate, has called the bailout “Unamerican” and said that Sherrod Brown should be ashamed of himself for his vote for it.

It's not just the auto bailout on which Romney looks out of touch, either. “In a year when the middle class is really still suffering and they had the opportunity to put their platform forward in a different way they chose a multimillionaire as their candidate,” Brian Rothenberg of ProgressOhio told AlterNet of the Republicans' problem in Ohio. “Our economy's actually rebounded a bit, there's arguing whether it's Kasich or Obama's recovery. They're fighting an uphill battle in Ohio by trying to argue the economy which is improving isn't improving.”

Improvements in Ohio undermine Romney's attempts to blame Obama for the stagnant national economy, and he doesn't want to associate too closely with Kasich, who may not be the country's least popular governor anymore but still only has 41 percent approval ratings. He could, like Mandel, double down on opposing the auto bailout and try to pretend that he has workers' best interests at heart, but after the recent airing of video showing his contempt for the working class, that doesn't seem to be a winning strategy.

It All Comes Down to Turnout: Voting Issues and Ohio

If there's one thing Ohio progressives learned in 2004, it's never to take an election win for granted. It's not just the millions upon millions being poured in by outside groups to snag a Senate seat and try to swing the Presidential race in Ohio—it's also dirty tricks designed to restrict access to voting itself.

As We Are Ohio's website explained, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted is at the center of the scandal around voter restriction in the state. “Husted was embroiled in a scandal that attracted national attention when he moved to close down voting on weekends and evenings in urban counties while voting to expand hours in rural and suburban counties.” The voter restriction efforts, they note, date back to the fight to repeal Senate Bill 5:

“Kasich and these extreme politicians thought they could stop us from vetoing SB 5 if they lowered voter turnout. They quickly passed HB 294 that reduced the amount of early voting opportunities on weekends and evenings and limited the period for absentee voting.”

Though politicians now claim HB 294 has been repealed, We Are Ohio noted that Husted still attempted to narrow early voting hours, and even attempted to ignore a federal judge's ruling that said he had to allow early in-person voting on the weekend before the election. The site also warns against “outside groups” trying to suppress the vote in person.

The state expects record early voting turnout this year, and Ohio organizers are determined not to let voter suppression tactics work. “I think that you have to fight with what you can win on, which is pushing back on the Secretary of State where you can,” Brian Rothenberg said. “At some point we're going to just have to deal with turnout. Back in the day when I ran campaigns, it didn't matter what they put in front of you, at some point we have to figure out how to have turnout no matter what the rules are.”

And the voters seem to understand the stakes, according to Deb Steele, who's been going door to door, reaching out to health care workers and registering voters. “It's a smoother ask, and people get it. They get that we're being played with, and that it's going to come down to every vote.”

Unions and the We Are Ohio coalition, labor-affiliated groups like Working America, as well as other progressive groups, women's groups like Planned Parenthood, and more will be running a ground campaign alongside Obama's get-out-the-vote effort and those of other Democrats. Ohioans know that everyone is watching them, watching their polls and their ads, their voting hours and early turnout numbers.

“Being in a swing state, we get inundated with enormous politics. It's kind of hard to breathe some days knowing how important Ohio is,” Deb Steele said. “In 2004 I know it was stolen here, but it doesn't mean we give up, it means you have to win by bigger margins, it means you have to prove how they stole it, it means 'Look these bastards are restricting voting hours, that's a dare.'”  

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

 
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