A Banner Night for Democrats as High-Profile Ballot Initiatives Go Blue

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Eric Albrecht / Columbus Dispatch / AP

Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich wipes his brow at the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday night, Nov. 8, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio, after the state's new collective bargaining law was defeated.

In a hard-won victory for Democrats and their labor-union allies, Ohioans decisively rejected the state’s collective-bargaining law on Tuesday night, repealing Republican Governor John Kasich’s signature legislation in a referendum that could reverberate into 2012.

Known as Issue 2, the ballot proposition asked voters to decide whether to implement or throw out a recently passed law, known as SB5, that would prevent public-employee unions from collective bargaining, prohibit strikes and force teachers, police offers and firefighters to contribute a set amount toward their health benefits and pensions. The Associated Press called the race with a quarter of precincts reporting and 63% of voters opting to restore bargaining rights for the state’s 350,000 unionized public employees. The margin of victory was even larger than the rout projected by several recent polls.

The referendum, the latest battle in the ongoing war over union rights and benefits, was the subject of a massive push by Big Labor. After SB5 passed last spring, unions stalled implementation by collecting more than a million signatures, and collected some $30 million to help galvanize opposition to the law. Its rejection was a sharp blow to Kasich, whose tethered himself to the contentious issue by aggressively urging its passage. “John Kasich chose to put his face on this campaign,” said state Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern. “The people of the state pushed back.”

On Tuesday night, Kasich acknowledged the defeat with humility, pledging to take the will of the state’s voters into account. “It’s clear that the people have spoken. My view is when people speak in a campaign like this, in a referendum, you have to listen,” he said. “I’ve heard their voices. I understand their decision. And frankly I respect what people have to say in an effort like this. As a result of that, it requires me to take a deep breath and spend some time reflecting on what happened.”

The victory in Ohio was the highlight of a banner night for Democrats, a commodity which has been in short supply since the party’s shellacking in the 2010 midterm elections. In the evening’s other hotly anticipated ballot proposition, Mississippians shot down an anti-abortion constitutional amendment known as the “Personhood amendment,” which would have imposed the stiffest restrictions on abortion of any state.

The amendment sought to define life as beginning at the point of fertilization, banned all abortions — including those to pregnancies caused by rape or incest — as well the morning-after pill. It would have been the first successful effort to pass a personhood amendment in the U.S., following two failed tries in Colorado. Though polls suggested the race was a toss-up, the measure’s ambiguous wording and stringent standards caused some social conservatives to balk and others, like Governor Haley Barbour, to voice reservations even as they indicated their support for the measure. It was soundly defeated; with 64% of precincts reporting, 57% of voters opposed the initiative.

Democrats also captured five of six statewide races in conservative Kentucky, including the battle for the governor’s mansion, where Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear coasted to a second term. A moderate Democrat, Beshear — like Earl Ray Tomblin in West Virginia — charted a path to victory that included out-raising his opponent and steering clear of President Obama. In Arizona, Russell Pearce, the architect of the state’s controversial immigration law, became the first sitting senator to be recalled in the state’s history. The party also won a ballot initiative that restored same-day voter registration in Maine, a provision that has historically favored Democrats.

Republicans scored several victories of their own. In Mississippi’s governor’s race, Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant easily warded off a challenge from Johnny DuPree, the first black candidate to win a major party’s nomination for governor of that state since Reconstruction. In Ohio, voters passed Issue 3, a largely symbolic Tea Party-infused measure that seeks to prevent compulsory participation in Obama’s health insurance individual mandate. And in Virginia, the GOP tightened its grip on the House of Delegates and — with at least once race hanging in the balance by a razor-thin margin — appeared within reach of winning the two seats necessary to effectively wrest away the State Senate, which would give Republicans complete control in Richmond and a hammerlock on the redistricting process.*

Setbacks notwithstanding, the night was a rare burst of good news for a beleaguered Democratic Party, and nowhere was the victory sweeter than in Ohio. SB5, which went further than Wisconsin’s controversial union legislation by including police officers and firefighters, sparked a similar outcry, with intense statehouse protests foreshadowing the coordinated effort to roll back the legislation. “The repeal of SB5 is a monumental victory for working families not only in Ohio, but all across the country,” said Michael Sargeant, executive director of Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. The lesson, according to Sargeant? “There is a price to pay for right-wing extremism and partisan overreach.”

*Sentence updated, 9:00 AM EST, to reflect overnight vote counts.