TOLEDO, Ohio — Union leaders are now looking ahead at Ohio's governor's race after knocking off a big city mayor who they say was their top political target this year.
Organized labor helped oust Toledo's mayor — an ally of Gov. John Kasich — who infuriated unions two years ago by appearing in a TV commercial backing the collective bargaining law that Ohio voters later overturned.
Democrats and labor officials believe that independent Toledo Mayor Mike Bell's loss two weeks ago to another, union-backed independent was fueled by his endorsement of the Republican plan to limit collective bargaining for public workers.
"A lot of what our membership responded to was that Mayor Bell aligned himself so closely with Gov. Kasich," said Mike Gillis, a spokesman for the Ohio AFL-CIO.
Kasich's critics are hoping that there is enough anger left over from the contentious debate in 2011 to defeat him. But defeating the governor will be a much bigger challenge than taking out Toledo's mayor, who had fallen out of favor with unions in a town dominated by organized labor.
Unions plan to remind voters often it was the governor who signed the law that would have prohibited more than 350,000 public employees from negotiating health care and pension benefits and would have banned public employee strikes.
They also are warning that there is a movement led by conservatives to follow the lead of Michigan and Indiana by turning Ohio into a right-to-work state.
Kasich has distanced himself from right-to-work supporters who want to ban mandatory union membership and prohibit Ohio unions from charging dues to non-members. He has said that making Ohio a right-to-work state is not one of his priorities.
The governor told reporters following the November election that he's not sure if the debate over collective bargaining will continue to be an issue during his bid for a second term.
"I would hope in the election next year the campaign is about issues and not what we've been able to see in the past," he said.
Jim Ruvolo, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman who's now a political consultant, said union voters will still be motivated by what they thought was as an attack on their rights two years ago, but that won't be what determines who wins.
"The race is going to be decided to on the economy," he said.
Former Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett doubts that Kasich's role in the collective bargaining fight will carry much weight outside union strongholds in northern Ohio.
"It's not going to have an impact in other parts of the state," he said.
Still, Democrats and union leaders are hopeful it will, especially after Bell's defeat.
Ray Wood, who leads a United Auto Workers unit in Toledo, said he doesn't believe that attempts to take away the bargaining rights of unions are over, and that will bring out more blue-collar voters next November.
"In some ways, they've awakened a sleeping giant," he said.