Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected Issue 2 on Tuesday, delivering a haymaker to Republican-led efforts to restrict bargaining rights for government workers and damaging the fortunes of Gov. John Kasich.
The lead was so great that We Are Ohio claimed victory just after 9 p.m. Tuesday with only a fraction of the state's precincts reporting. Kasich conceded the race shortly afterward.
About 61 percent of voters, or nearly 2.2 million, rejected the law known as Senate Bill 5, according to unofficial results. About 39 percent, or about 1.4 million, voted for the law.
Results show Issue 2 lost in 82 of Ohio's 88 counties.
At a victory party in Cleveland, public workers cheered loudly and chanted "We won!" as union leaders, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, read the results.
Offcials called the vote a "veto" of Kasich's effort to break the unions.
"Thank you, John Kasich, for uniting the labor movement like it's never been before," said Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association. "We will not be divided again."
In Columbus, Kasich congratulated the Issue 2 opponents and said that the defeat provides him an opportunity to "take a deep breath" and reflect.
"It's clear the people have spoken," Kasich said. "I've heard their voices, understand their decision and I respect what the people had to say."
Tuesday's statewide referendum on Senate Bill 5 ends a nearly year-long standoff between Kasich and Ohio's public workers, a fight that injected life -- and lots and lots of money -- into what would have been a sleepy, off-year election.
The defeat will likely send Kasich and his Republican allies back to the drawing board. For the opponents, the victory has energized an army of pro-union and pro-Democrat supporters a year before the presidential election, in one of the key swing states in the country.
Emboldened by big 2010 election victories and pressed by a looming budget deficit, Kasich and GOP lawmakers pushed SB5 through the legislature in March without any Democratic support.
The law was the first major attempt to overhaul Ohio’s collective bargaining law in decades. At its core, SB5 altered collective bargaining by changing what what be open for negotiations. It put more power in the hands of the managers by restricting what can be bargained for.
The unions representing public workers saw it as a direct attack, and they responded in kind. They gathered roughly 1.3 million signatures – about 900,000 of which were verified – to have SB5 placed on Tuesday's ballot.
So began a long campaign to convince Ohio voters to decide, blitzing voters with television ads containing varying levels of truth.
The supporters argued that Senate Bill 5 would give local governments tools to get their budgets under control, prevent tax increases and help create jobs. They argued that government workers have it better than their private sector counterparts, and that it's time for teachers, police officers and firefighter to pay their fair share.
Opponents called the bill an attack on the middle class that would kill jobs, erode wages, and make it more difficult for local governments to provide services to residents. They said that Senate Bill 5 was a blatant partisan attack by Kasich to undermine the unions.
The defeat will hurt Kasich, but it’s unclear how much. The governor was the most recognizable spokesman for the law, appearing in campaign commercials and, in recent weeks, travelling the state to speak at pro-Issue 2 rallies.
But Kasich still has three years to salvage his popularity, and Republicans remain in control of the Ohio Legislature. Some experts speculate they will attempt a "watered-down" version of Senate Bill 5 that includes only the most popular parts of the plan, including measures about health care costs and pensions.