Republicans in control of the governments in two states – Ohio and Kentucky – won big victories in mid-November, as the latter’s Right to Work law was upheld by a state court and the former’s GOP-dominated legislature passed a controversial stand your ground bill.
These victories show just how meaningful control of state governments can be, especially at a time of gridlock at the federal level. Republicans, who swept to power in state houses across the country in 2010, have leveraged those gains into conservative policy victories that influence how millions of Americans live their lives.
However, Democrats took powerful initial steps in chipping away at the GOP’s state fortresses in the recent midterms, winning seven governorships and more than 300 state legislative seats.
A Legal Thumbs Up For Right to Work in Kentucky
Republicans in control of Kentucky’s government passed a right to work law in January of 2017, a long-term priority for state Republicans that they had tried and failed to pass every year since 2000. Right to work laws make it illegal for labor unions to charge non-members union dues when they are hired. Unions have long claimed that such laws promote the free-rider dilemma, where individual workers have an incentive not to pay dues while still benefiting from the union’s efforts.
In addition, right to work laws – which have now been passed in more than 25 states – deprive labor unions of needed funds. This is a victory for Republicans, as labor unions have long represented an important organizing and fundraising resource for Democrats.
The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the law earlier this month, rejecting a lawsuit from the Kentucky State AFL-CIO and Teamsters Local 89. The two labor unions argued that the right to work law violated the US Constitution’s equal protections provisions and that the method the state legislature used to pass the law also ran afoul of several procedural requirements in state law.
The Kentucky Supreme Court pointed out that similar right to work laws had been upheld by the US Supreme Court and other state courts across the country. The Court similarly rejected the plaintiffs’ procedural claims, leaving the right to work law standing for good.
Stand Your Ground in Ohio – With a Questionable Future
Meanwhile, in Ohio, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a stand your ground law, 62-35, in the face of strong opposition from a number of organizations. The bill still has to pass the state Senate, but that seems like a foregone conclusion.
The stand your ground law would revise the state’s existing statute, which imposes a so-called “duty to retreat” on individuals who are under threat, with an exception for situations where the person is in his or her house or vehicle. The bill passed by the state House would expand that exception to the point where an individual has no duty to retreat before using self-defense if that person is legally in the location.
There are complicated political dynamics at work in Ohio, however. Ohio governor John Kasich has indicated he will veto any stand your ground bill, meaning such a bill will not become law while Kasich is in office.
But Kasich will not be governor for long. Republican Mike DeWine pulled out a narrow victory in the recent race to succeed Kasich, defeating Democrat Richard Cordray in one of the country’s most closely watched gubernatorial elections. DeWine has indicated that he supports a stand your ground law. Once he takes office in January, he could well prove willing to sign another bill passed by the legislature.
The Importance of Gerrymandering in Ohio
While Kentucky is a deeply red state, Ohio is closely divided, though with an increasingly conservative tilt. Despite the competitiveness of the state, Republicans hold overwhelming power in Ohio, including a veto-proof majority in the state legislature.
Ohio Republicans maintained their huge majority – 63 percent – in the recent elections in spite of the fact that Republicans won just 50.3 percent of the total state legislative vote. Democrats will have almost no say in the operation of the Ohio government over the next two years in spite of solid performances across the state.
It’s a reflection of the skill with which Ohio Republicans have gerrymandered the state, as is the GOP control of Ohio’s congressional delegation. And that should serve as an important illustration of the fact that gerrymandering is not just a bit of political game playing – it has a huge impact on how Americans are governed.