The vote buoyed Democrats, who are hoping to rebound from their sweeping losses in 2010, though experts agree the economy is still the biggest issue. “If the economy were to turn around in the next year, that’s going to matter a lot more than what happens in ballot issues,” said one political analyst, Justin Buchler.
Ohio’s bill went further than a similar one in Wisconsin by including police officers and firefighters, and was considered by many observers to be a barometer of the national mood on the political conundrum of the day: what is the appropriate size and role of government, and who should pay for it.
Its defeat is anticipated to energise the labour movement, which largely supports the Democrats, ahead of Barack Obama’s re-election effort.
The result indicated that voters in the industrial midwest may be growing disenchanted with the Tea Party-backed Republicans voted into office in 2010, who have advocated deep spending cuts and opposed tax increases.
Faced with budget gaps and Tea Party pressure to curb spending, Republican governors around the country have sought to limit unions’ influence. The new law repealed in Ohio would have severely limited the bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees.
The law had not yet taken effect. It would have permitted workers to negotiate wages but not pensions or healthcare benefits. It banned strikes for public sector workers, scrapped binding arbitration and dropped promotions based solely on seniority.
With about a third of the vote tallied, the repeal effort was leading 61% to 39%.
The vote is a blow to the state’s new Republican governor, John Kasich, who pushed strongly for the legislation after Republicans gained a firm hold on the Ohio legislature in 2010.
Labour and business interests poured more than $30m (£18.5m) into the nationally watched campaign, and turnout was high.
Kasich and supporters in the business community promoted the law as a means for local governments to save money and keep workers. The largely union-funded opponent coalition painted the issue as a threat to public safety and middle-class workers, running TV ads filled with images of firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses.
Ohio voters also approved a proposal to prohibit people from being required to buy health insurance as part of the national healthcare overhaul supported by Obama. The vote was mostly symbolic but Republicans hope to use it as part of a legal challenge.
In Maine, voters repealed a new state law supported by the state’s new Tea Party-backed Republican governor that requires voters to register at least two days before an election.
The elections also include governors’ races in Mississippi and Kentucky. Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, was re-elected, becoming the second Democrat to win a governorship in 2011. He won despite high unemployment, budget shortfalls and an onslaught of third-party attack ads.
In Mississippi the lieutenant governor, Phil Bryant, appeared poised to keep the governor’s mansion in Republican hands, succeeding Haley Barbour, who toyed briefly with a run for president. The Hattiesburg mayor, Johnny Dupree, is the first black major-party nominee for governor in Mississippi, but an upset win for him is not on the cards.