Despite Talk Of Decline, Unions Remain Key Players

Sen. Harry Reid, D-NV, at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Oct. 22.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-NV, at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Oct. 22. Hanging onto Reid's seat is a priority for labor unions. Ethan Miller/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Ethan Miller/Getty

One of the big stories in this year's election is the amount of cash that non-party, non-candidate groups have been pouring into races across the country.

When it comes to campaign ads, such spending has overwhelmingly favored Republican candidates this year. But labor unions, a critical Democratic ally, are once again among the biggest spenders overall.

For all of the talk of the decline of U.S. labor, unions remain important players in elections.

Nearly one in four voters lives in a union household. They are more likely to vote and polls show they still solidly favor Democrats by a solid margin. So you can see why labor leaders are working so hard as next Tuesday nears.

"It's time, brothers and sisters, it's time to stand together, it's time to march together, it's time to knock on doors together, it's time to get out the vote together. It's time to win with Harry Reid, our champion," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Tuesday in Reno, Nev., at a campaign event for Sen. Harry Reid.

Hanging onto Reid's seat is a priority for unions, but this event also helps demonstrate how unions spend their campaign dollars.

"The vast majority of their resources will go toward the ground game, toward getting their members and other likely Democratic voters to the polls," said Dorian Warren, who follows labor and politics at Columbia University. "The opposite is true of groups that lean right. Most of their money — and for instance the Chamber of Commerce — will be spending their resources on ads primarily, not so much on the ground game."

In the final days before the election, the union ground game kicks into high gear.

Spending Surge

The amount of money spent by outside interest groups and labor unions on this year's Congressional elections is easily topping the totals of the past two election cycles.

2010 (through mid-October):

— Supporting Democrats: $42 million.

— Supporting Republicans: $105.5 million.

— Total: $147.5 million.

2008 (full election cycle):

— Supporting Democrats: $54.8 million.

— Supporting Republicans: $64.5 million.

— Total: $119.6 million.

2006 (full election cycle):

— Supporting Democrats: $30.4 million.

— Supporting Republicans: $23.3 million.

— Total: $53.9 million.

Source: Campaign Finance Institute report on "election-related spending by political committees and non-profits."

Karen Ackerman, the political director of the AFL-CIO, says individual unions have taken to the airwaves, but that personal contact is more effective.

"We know we're going to make over 5 million calls," she said. We'll be walking and knocking on over 4 million doors.

"And we'll have almost 2 million flyers out at worksites. Overall we're touching around 17 million union voters."

Democrats have complained that outside groups are giving Republicans a huge money advantage this year. That's likely to be true when it's all added up after next week. But GOP strategist Karl Rove, who is associated with a non-party group called American Crossroads, says Democrats have no grounds for complaint.

"This has been going on for a long while," he told the CBS show Face the Nation. "In fact, you left out a big player in this. Four unions alone will have, according to their own announcements, spent $222 million in money on elections this year."

The Wall Street Journal recently compiled a list of the top five outside spenders of this election cycle. No. 1 is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the government employees union, at $87 million. Next are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at $75 million and American Crossroads at $65 million.

But Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, says that chart doesn't take into account where the money comes from. Unions get it from members, while corporate-backed outside groups are not required to disclose where their money comes from.

"The union does actually disclose every contribution our members make voluntarily to our political fund," she said on C-SPAN. "There is access to that record and there is absolutely no money that our union receives from outside of our membership."

This year labor has hit or exceeded all of its dollar goals, but Warren of Columbia University says it's still an uphill fight.

"It's not enough," Warren said. "So you can hit all your marks, but it's not a total predictor of what the outcomes might be."

He says just look back to 2006 when Republicans hit all of their cash goals and lost both the House and Senate to the Democrats.

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