In last year’s class of incoming Republican governors, John Kasich was among the best bets to become a star. A former nine-term congressman, Kasich ousted a formidable Democratic incumbent by persuading Ohioans that the state’s bloated budget needed trimming, and that he, a former House Budget Committee chairman, was the right person for the job. A decade after flirting with a presidential bid, there were whispers that running Ohio might be a way-station to a future Oval Office run.
But so far, Kasich’s tenure hasn’t gone as planned. The former TV personality and investment banker is currently the nation’s second-least popular sitting governor behind Hawaii Democrat Neil Abercrombie, according to the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, with ratings that have mostly hovered in the 30s. And on Tuesday, he’s likely to see his signature legislation, a bill that curbs collective-bargaining rights for public employees, repealed in a hotly contested referendum. It would be a telling rebuke to the governor who made it a centerpiece of his platform. “If voters could do the governor’s race over again, they would,” says PPP’s Tom Jensen.
It’s tempting to chalk up this buyer’s remorse to the fact that voters who like the theoretical concept of austerity often balk when the cuts hit home. But Kasich’s problems run deeper. He’s come under criticism for cuts to education, health-care facilities and local government funding, while pushing privatization and implementing new tax credits for businesses and cuts for individuals. Over the summer, a Quinnipiac poll found that 50% of voters believed Kasich’s budget was unfair, with just 32% calling it just.
Kasich also made the misstep of targeting powerful pillars of Ohio’s middle class. While Wisconsin’s bill the rolled back collective bargaining-rights exempted police and firefighters, Ohio’s did not. Labor-allied groups ran ads warning that SB5 would leave communities more vulnerable to crime and with slower emergency-response times. Public-sector unions have been a frequent target of Republicans’ ire, but they’re not a good pinata in this pivotal swing state. And Kasich had earlier earned the ire of this constituency when, shortly after his election, video surfaced of him berating a state trooper after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation. “Thirty percent of Republicans oppose [SB5], and I think that’s because there’s a lot of Republicans who live in union households,” Jensen says.
While the failure of Issue 2 would be a blow to Kasich, it’s only one chapter in an unfolding story. Over the past decade, as the Midwest’s manufacturing engines rusted and the nation plunged into a recession, Ohio bled 600,000 jobs. Whether the governor’s economic reforms help reverse the exodus will be far more important when he comes up for reelection than the referendum on the ballot today.