A law that sharply curtails collective-bargaining rights for Ohio's public employees is sinking in the polls, raising Democratic hopes that defeat of a Nov. 8 referendum on it could boost their prospects in the crucial state in 2012.

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A law that sharply curtails collective-bargaining rights for Ohio’s public employees is sinking in the polls, raising Democratic hopes that defeat of a Nov. 8 referendum on its fate could boost their prospects in the crucial state in 2012.

The law’s diminishing popularity has coincided with a decline in the approval ratings of Republican Gov. John Kasich, the measure’s most visible proponent. Union-led foes have waged an energetic, high-spending campaign against what they say was an overreach by the state’s Republican political leaders.

Now, analysts said, that effort could carry over into 2012, and national organizations are pouring millions into both sides of the referendum battle.

“The organizational efforts seem to be reviving portions of the Democratic coalition, and that will likely have a beneficial effect on the presidential campaign for the Democrats,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.

Opponents have branded the law an attack on workers who form the backbone of the middle class, including police officers, firefighters and teachers.

The law prohibits the state’s 350,000 public employees from striking and requires workers to pay for their health insurance and pensions. Kasich signed the bill into law in late March, but it is on hold pending the referendum, Issue 2, which gives voters the opportunity to repeal it. A “yes” vote would retain the new law while a “no” would repeal it.

Result of big GOP win

Kasich, elected in a 2010 GOP surge, championed the law. Legislative debate over the law drew thousands of protesters to the state Capitol in Columbus. Once the measure was enacted, opponents gathered 1.3 million signatures to put Issue 2 on the ballot.

Kasich said the law gives local governments the tools they need to cut government spending while ensuring that public employees pay for a fair share of their benefits. He joined Republican governors in states including Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey who sought to balance budgets by cutting government services and wresting deep concessions from public workers, in some cases by curbing the power of unions.

But some of those actions have fueled a political backlash.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is facing a recall campaign that will begin gathering signatures next month. Union-led activists earlier forced a series of recall elections that resulted in two GOP state senators losing their seats, leaving Republicans clinging to a one-vote majority in the state Senate.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott also has seen his approval ratings plummet after he implemented deep budget cuts, championed corporate tax cuts and eliminated 15,000 public-sector jobs.

Meanwhile, 54 percent of Ohio voters disapprove of Kasich’s job performance, making him the most unpopular governor in the country, according to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling.

The law to limit collective bargaining is faring no better. A Quinnipiac poll this week found that 57 percent of Ohio voters support repeal of the law while 32 percent oppose repeal. The opposition is 6 percentage points higher than what was measured last month.

No to bargaining limits

The poll found voters to be strongly supportive of parts of the law requiring public workers to contribute a minimum amount to their retirement and health-care costs. But voters strongly oppose other provisions banning strikes, ending negotiations over health-care benefits and eliminating seniority rights, the poll found.

Ohio Republicans have dismissed the findings, arguing the wording of the questions and the people canvassed skewed the results. Moreover, they say, the ballot question is unlikely to carry over into 2012.

Kasich, meanwhile, is campaigning feverishly to keep the law in place. “We’re going to keep working,” he said this week when asked about recent polls. “We’re making the case, and we’re going to make it all the way up to Election Day, and we’ll see how it all comes out.”

Material from the Tribune Washington bureau is included

in this report.