One by one, union-backed candidates fell in states where organized labor made big political investments: Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, even President Barack Obama’s home state, Illinois, where a Republican won the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years.
“I’m not going to try to candy-coat what was a pretty significant set of defeats across the board,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “We spent heavily, people were invested everywhere you can invest, the candidates were very solid candidates. But we came up short.”
As union membership dwindles -- the percentage of the workforce belonging to unions is about half what it was three decades ago -- organized labor continues to see its political clout diminish. Conservative Republicans who took over key Midwestern states four years ago, implementing bargaining restrictions, right-to-work declarations and reductions in public-employee pension benefits, survived challenges.
Union officials pointed to a combination of forces, including corporate money going to Republicans, voter dissatisfaction with the economy and Obama and labor’s own failure to offer a compelling message. The result was reelection victories for Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan and Rick Scott in Florida.
Voters asked, “‘Tell us how you’re going to solve our economic problems,’ and unfortunately they heard more of that from Republicans,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “Democrats took a licking.”
Other factors complicated the challenge for unions. In Illinois, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn pushed a pension restructuring bill through the legislature in 2013, cutting benefits for government employees. Unions challenged that in court, saying the changes are unconstitutional. Quinn lost his reelection bid to Republican equity investor Bruce Rauner.
In that instance, the election “was not in any way a referendum on organized labor,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of Chicago-based Council 31 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 70,000 government workers and 25,000 retirees. The union endorsed Quinn with reservations.
“There was a highly unpopular Democratic governor,” Lynch said, “and he was very unpopular among our members. We obviously felt, though, the alternative was worse.”
In Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo became the first Democrat elected governor since 1992; she’d drawn opposition from government workers for pushing through pension-benefit cuts while state treasurer.
Victories by Republican governors and candidates such as Rauner show that voters have come to support limits on public-employee rights and benefits, said Stephen Moore, chief economist for the Heritage Foundation, research group in Washington that favors small government.
Even with a stock market recovery and improved job picture, exit polls found most voters think the U.S. economy is stagnating or getting worse, according to the Associated Press. Half said their family’s financial situation hasn’t improved during the past two years, and one fourth said it’s gotten worse, according to AP.
Florida -- where Scott defeated former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who ran as a Democrat -- ranked fifth in improvement in economic health from the second quarter of 2013 through the same period this year, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.
Unions just couldn’t overcome people’s satisfaction with many officeholders, said Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor. “Most of the voters agreed with the incumbent and disagreed with the labor unions,” Barbour said, rewarding Walker, Snyder and Scott for the results of their policies, including those involving unions.
Public-sector unions contributed $44 million to state candidates and political committees for the 2014 election, including $1.2 million to Democrat Tom Wolf, who won in Pennsylvania, $1.1 million to Quinn and $204,000 to Democrat Mark Schauer, who lost to Snyder in Michigan, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana.
During the first nine months of the year, the Republican Governors Association raised $67 million, according to Internal Revenue Service filings, compared with $45.6 million by its Democratic counterpart.
The Heritage Foundation’s Moore said the success of Walker and Snyder could embolden other governors and state legislatures to take on unions and pension plans. They would do so at their political peril, said Kurt Fritts, national political director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Fritts said he thinks Walker could have been defeated had voter turnout reached levels of a presidential election year, and that contests in 2016 will be more favorable for Democrats.
“If folks see this as a message to move to the right with really conservative policies, then they will be answering for those in 2016,” Fritts said.
In Wisconsin, labor-law changes pushed by the victorious Walker reduced union membership in the state, said William Jones, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “The aftermath will continue to be bad for unions.”