PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Before there was a crucial recall election about labor rights in Wisconsin, there was a crucial referendum on labor rights in Ohio. In that race, too, outside groups funded by the billionaire Koch brothers pumped money and resources into the vote, and public employees' unions looked to be on the defensive.
But in Ohio last November, the unions won.
While Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus's comments to Politico that "I don’t think we can get pushed around anymore by Big Labor” seem to summarize one emerging narrative of Tuesday's recall election, Republicans were singing a very different tune just a few months ago in another key presidential swing state.
Labor activists gathering at the Netroots Nation conference of online organizers on Thursday said the takeaway from Wisconsin's recall election is complicated by the 61 percent to 39 percent defeat in Ohio of the state's Senate Bill 5. That bill would have stripped public employee unions of collective bargaining rights.
While not minimizing the gravity of the Wisconsin loss, the labor activists argued that the Ohio referendum shows voters are willing to back labor rights when given a straight up or down choice. And, they said, it is a sign that independent voters can be mobilized for labor rights come November.
"They were totally different types of elections," said Doug Stern, a Cincinnati firefighter who featured prominently in his union's efforts to defeat Ohio Gov. John Kasich's (R) plan to disarm all public employees -- including first responders.
In Ohio, unions took their case to voters directly with a referendum. Wisconsin, by contrast, has no provision for statewide initiatives. So activists there were instead forced to turn to a recall election, the first ever in the state, to try and remove Walker from office.
After Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett won the Democratic Party nomination, the recall election essentially turned into a rerun of the 2010 gubernatorial race, featuring the same two candidates. (It was also, to some extent, a vote on whether Wisconsin should have recalls at all: 70 percent of voters said they were never appropriate or only acceptable in cases of official misconduct.)
"You start a recall election with a negative to begin with: we don't like this person," said Stern. "You have a much higher threshold to go through people on a recall election. And it goes back to faces: If you don't like Tom Barrett, you don't like Tom Barrett."
Ohio, by contrast, was about a single issue. Kate Kennedy, the former new media director for the pro-union coalition We Are Ohio, said her group actively avoided anything that might turn off supporters of Gov. Kasich.
"The issue would have been John Kasich. We were very careful not to attack the governor. We kept our ads very positive -- and the ones that were a little negative didn't do as well," said Kennedy.
That strategy paid off: 57 percent of independents, and a striking 30 percent of Republicans, supported collective bargaining for public employees, according to polls.
And while collective bargaining could hardly have been far from voters' minds when they went to the polls in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Barrett barely campaigned on the issue. To liberals' dismay, in fact, he refused to promise to veto a state budget bill that did not restore bargaining rights.
It's hard to say how a referendum on collective bargaining would have gone in Wisconsin. A CNN exit poll found that 52 percent of voters supported Walker's changes to collective bargaining rights, roughly the same as his 53 percent share of the vote.
"I would argue that the whole labor issue got lost," Paul Secunda, a professor of labor law at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said in a telephone interview. "A lot of the post-mortem is about what a horrible blow this is has been for the labor unions, but I don't think it can be read that way."
One thing the Wisconsin vote can be read as: a vindication of Scott Walker's "divide and conquer" strategy. The Wisconsin governor excluded police and firefighters' unions from his anti-labor Budget Repair Bill. Although both groups came out against Walker, unions were deprived of an argument they wielded extensively in Ohio: public safety.
The very first line in the official ballot argument against Senate Bill 5 was that it "puts all our families' safety at risk -- making it harder for emergency responders, police and firefights to negotiate for critical safety equipment and training that protects us all." Television ads on the "no" side featured pictures of firefighters saving a young girl from a fire and emotional footage of her grandmother asking voters to defeat the measure.
Stern, a blunt-talking registered Republican, appeared in one of the anti-Senate Bill 5 ads. He isn't sure the inclusion of firefighters made the difference.
"Yeah, my beautiful face on TV really brought people over," Stern joked.
But the coalition in favor of Senate Bill 5 clearly thought the public safety issue mattered to voters. In an episode quickly dubbed "Grannygate," One of their ads went so far as to twist the grandmother's words so that they appeared to be against collective bargaining.
And the firefighters will be back.
"Mitt Romney supports Senate Bill 5. We've got video of him saying it," said Stern. "We will be rolling that out, social media wise and internally to our firefighters, closer to election day to remind them: this was important last year, it's important this year."