Labor is confronting the same challenges as Republicans—its core voters are aging and its mission for much of the 20th century doesn’t match the necessities of a changing America. The new economy, filled with workers regularly switching jobs, isn’t the same as a generation ago, when most employees stuck with the same firm for life and negotiated benefits accordingly. Labor badly needs a retooling, to focus as much toward building worker-education programs to train employees for service-sector jobs as on fighting laws designed to crack down on their political power, which has been declining without any external involvement. Historian Walter Russell Mead argues that we’re undergoing a sea change in American life, the demise of what he calls the blue economic model: “The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the 60 years after the New Deal, don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them.”

One glaring irony about the 2012 presidential election is that unions were able to provide a bulwark of support to President Obama in many battleground states, even as their numbers dwindled sharply. In Ohio, union households made up only 22 percent of the electorate, down 6 points since 2008. In Michigan, labor households made up just 28 percent of the electorate, a steep drop from 34 percent four years earlier. Even outside the Rust Belt in Nevada, the labor proportion of the vote dropped from 23 percent to 16 percent…

Over the next two years, the AFL-CIO will be focusing its involvement on six states, all with high-profile gubernatorial races: Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The stakes are high: If labor wins, there will be serious second-guessing over Republicans’ aggressive agenda and the results could cost the GOP its base of working-class whites. But if Republicans emerge from 2014 with their governors largely intact, they’ll enter 2016 with a rallying cry, unafraid to call for deep-seated economic reforms as a major element of the party’s future platform.