MADISON, Wis. — The resounding rejection of an anti-union law by Ohio voters provides a huge boost for Democrats and union officials preparing for their next major battle -- the attempted recall of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker -- but their prospects could be clouded by the differences between the two Midwestern states and their election laws.
After the nearly 2-1 defeat of the Ohio law, union opponents of Walker are finalizing plans to gather the more than 540,000 signatures needed to put his recall on the ballot next year. The petition drive is expected to start next week.
After he assumed office this year, Walker pushed through a new law that sharply restricted the bargaining rights of most state employees. The action made him a central figure in a push by conservatives across the nation to weaken public employee unions to ease state fiscal problems. On Tuesday, a similar law championed by Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich was rejected by voters.
But Wisconsin law does not allow a public referendum on such a question, so opponents are hoping to use the recall mechanism to replace Walker and then repeal the law.
The Ohio vote shows that some voters believe that conservative governors have overreached, but it's not clear they would go beyond striking down a specific law to oust a governor.
"It's very difficult to extrapolate from that simple one-issue vote to the much more complex recall process here," said Charles Franklin, a founder of pollster.com and a University of Wisconsin political science professor.
There's also the fact that politics in Ohio and Wisconsin are different. Ohio is one of the strongest union states in the nation. Unions have had a difficult time battling Walker in Wisconsin.
"What happens with politics in Ohio doesn't necessarily carry over here," Franklin said.
Recall organizers were buoyed by the rejection of the Ohio law, but cautious about how much it means for them.
"It's not apples to apples here," said Marty Beil, executive director of the 23,000-member Wisconsin State Employees Union. However, the victory did show the importance of forming coalitions including labor unions, community groups and others, Beil said.
Walker, when asked Wednesday about the Ohio vote, said he believes Wisconsin voters may be more accustomed to his measure because, unlike Ohio's, it had taken effect.
"We've had months of people seeing ... the reforms work," Walker said. "In Ohio, they didn't have the law in effect, they didn't see any of the benefits."
Other differences could also have an impact on voter opinions. Walker's collective bargaining limits largely exempted police and firefighters, two groups that enjoy broad public support, while Ohio's did not. The Ohio vote shows that the public is ready to reign in conservative policies that appear to go too far, said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, which represents 250,000 workers in the state.
Voters in a recall election would also have to decide whether they want to replace Walker with a Democratic alternative, a more complicated proposition than a single-issue referendum. The state's two most prominent Democrats – former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl – have said they aren't interested.
Those considering a run include Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in last year's governor's race, former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
So far, efforts to recall legislative supporters of the anti-union law have had mixed results. Only two of six Senate Republicans targeted in recall elections this summer were ousted, leaving the GOP with a one-vote majority. Republicans hold a 59-39 majority in the Assembly.
A poll released in July showed that 59 percent of Wisconsin residents disapproved of Walker's performance at that point. A majority, 55 percent, said they disapproved of his two-year budget plan that made cuts to plug a $3 billion budget shortfall.
Walker has defended both the collective bargaining law and his first budget, which made cuts to public education, as necessary steps to put the state in better financial condition. He says those efforts, along with other new laws the Republican Legislature has passed with his approval, will make Wisconsin more attractive to business and lead to the creation of 250,000 jobs, his key campaign promise.
Labor unions, conservative groups and others have poured huge amounts into the Ohio vote. Heavy spending is expected by all sides in Wisconsin if the Walker recall gets on the ballot next year
We Are Ohio, the union-backed coalition fighting the law, poured at least $24 million into the campaign, while Building a Better Ohio, which supported the law, spent about $8 million.
An estimated $44 million was spent on the state Senate recall campaigns in Wisconsin.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Milwaukee.