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By Chris Opfer
Oct. 18 — As the election races likely to determine control of the Senate come down to the wire, labor organizations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are employing competing strategies to try to influence the outcomes.
The Chamber and three of the most politically active labor groups—the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—are spending big money on the midterm elections generally.
The two factions have significantly different ideas about how to best put those funds to work, however, with the Chamber largely supporting Republicans though expensive television commercials and advertising spots and the labor groups pushing mostly Democratic candidates through grass-roots efforts.
The Chamber has spent more than $26.2 million during the election cycle on commercials, ads and other efforts to bolster various candidates, according to Federal Elections Commission disclosure filings. That includes direct spending in support of Republicans in what are widely considered to be the 10 tightest contests.
“We're putting our resources into races that we think can help regain a pro-business majority in Congress,” Rob Engstrom, the Chamber's national political director, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 14.
The three labor organizations, on the other hand, have thus far spent less directly on the hot Senate races, spreading more than $41.4 million across a wider span of contests. They've also steered the money that they do spend on the tight contests toward mailers, fliers and door-to-door activities to educate voters and get them to the polls.
AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 17 that the figures don't completely capture the labor federation's decentralized approach to elections, in which state and local federations make individual decisions about where and how to spend money. He said the general idea behind those activities is to reach voters directly.
“The predominate role that we play is on the ground,” Hauser said. “That necessarily requires deeper roots and isn't as much a matter of playing around with money and looking at polls and a map in the way that a Karl Rove does,” he added, referring to the Crossroads GPS PAC founder.
Republicans need to pick up six seats in the November elections in order to take control of the Senate, and are widely expected to retain their majority in the House.
Among the Senate races considered the closest, six—in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina—are for seats currently held by Democrats. Tight contests in Kansas and Kentucky are for seats currently held by Republicans, while hotly contested Iowa and Georgia elections are to fill seats vacated by retiring Sens. Tom Harkin (D) and Saxby Chambliss (R), respectively.
The Chamber has spent at least $1 million in seven of those 10 races, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics as of Oct. 17, placing the organization among the top 10 outside contributors in each race. It's also the third biggest outside spender in Kansas, where the Chamber recently doled out $600,000 in support of Pat Roberts's (R) reelection bid.
Although the Chamber didn't spend much money in either Arkansas or Louisiana in the first three quarters of this year, that's likely to change. The organization recently endorsed challenger Tom Cotton (R) in his bid to unseat Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in Arkansas. Engstrom told Bloomberg BNA that the Chamber is convinced that the Louisiana election will require a runoff between incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and challenger Bill Cassidy (R). He said the Chamber isn't planning to spend money on the contest until after the first round of voting.
Although the Chamber aligns with “pro-business” lawmakers regardless of their political party, the organization isn't endorsing a Democrat in any of the 36 Senate races slated for November, Rob Engstrom said.
Engstrom said the Chamber decides whether to support incumbent candidates based on a scoring system that tracks a candidate's votes on a wide range of legislation of interest to businesses. Those who vote with the Chamber at least 70 percent of the time over the course of their careers are deemed endorsement-worthy.
In 2013, the scorecard issues included a comprehensive immigration reform measure (S. 744) and a transportation bill (S. 601) requiring the use of American iron, steel and manufacturing products in certain infrastructure projects, both of which the Chamber supported.
Although the latest scorecard doesn't track 2014 votes, the Chamber has strongly opposed a number of labor and employment measures this year, including legislation to raise the federal minimum wage (S. 2223) and enhance pay discrimination protections for workers (S. 2199).
The decision to support non-incumbent candidates is a bit more complicated, according to Engstrom. He told Bloomberg BNA that the Chamber undertakes an “exhaustive process” in vetting challengers, including a detailed questionnaire, meetings, input from local officers and members and ultimately a Chamber committee vote.
What's clear is that the Chamber is looking to flip Senate control to Republicans. Although Engstrom said the Chamber aligns with “pro-business” lawmakers regardless of their political party, the organization isn't endorsing a Democrat in any of the 36 Senate races slated for November.
“The Democratic party at the federal level has entirely walked away from the business community,” Engstrom told Bloomberg BNA. He said the number of Democratic incumbents who meet the 70 percent threshold has dwindled from 38 in 2008 to 6 this year, all of which are in the House. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who isn't up for reelection this year, is the only Senate Republican incumbent who doesn't currently meet the threshold.
“Our goal is to reestablish a middle, pro-business majority in the Senate,” Engstrom told Bloomberg BNA. “We want to remove the threat to our membership that's been directed at it by Harry Reid and Barack Obama and from a regulatory standpoint.”
That includes fighting back against what many employer groups have called overly aggressive moves by agencies like the Labor Department, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Randy Johnson, the Chamber's senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits, told Bloomberg BNA in August that he expected to see Republicans ramp up oversight of these agencies in the event that the party takes control of the Senate. Those lawmakers aren't likely to get the president to sign legislation overhauling the agencies into law, but Johnson said hearings and other oversight could force the agencies to rethink their policies.
The Chamber's direct spending in the tight Senate races appears to vastly eclipse that by the union groups. Labor organizations are among the top 10 outside contributors in only the Colorado race, where AFSCME has expended roughly $1.8 million in support of incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D).
But Hauser said the figures are limited to the national AFL-CIO's Workers' Voices PAC and obscure on-the-ground efforts by local outposts. He said the PAC is intended to supplement efforts by state federations where a race is particularly close, a candidate is especially deserving or other circumstances warrant.
The figures also don't include money donated by unions to other PACs, which in turn use the money to support candidates. Labor groups like the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters ($500,000), the Massachusetts Teachers Association ($500,000) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ($250,000) have donated significant sums to the Senate Majority PAC, which has given heavy support to Democrats in a number of key races.
Hauser said the AFL-CIO's overall strategy is aimed at getting union members face to face with potential voters to make their case for a preferred candidate. The more those members have in common with voters from a social and economic perspective, the more persuasive the labor federation believes they're likely to be.
“Our job is to create as many conversations as possible,” Hauser said. “It's more about people talking to people individually rather than having them consume TV ads,” he added.
AFL-CIO supports lawmakers who share unions' priorities, regardless of party affiliation, Jeff Hauser said. Kansas challenger Greg Orman (I) is the only non-Democrat in a Senate race, but the federation has endorsed six Republicans in upcoming House elections.
Like the Chamber, Hauser said the AFL-CIO supports lawmakers who share labor unions' priorities, regardless of party affiliation. These days, that's mostly candidates from the left side of the aisle: Kansas challenger Greg Orman (I) is the only non-Democrat to receive the AFL-CIO's stamp of approval in a Senate race this year. But the federation has endorsed six Republicans in upcoming House elections, according to Hauser.
Hauser said throwing money into expensive TV ads doesn't make sense for the labor federation because they're likely to be outgunned by operations with deeper pockets on both sides of the close races. Because the AFL-CIO is also regularly involved in state and local elections across the country, he added that it's important for members to get direct face time with voters and to stick to a fairly narrow message.
“We're not scare mongering with the latest headlines about Ebola or ISIS,” Hauser said. “We're talking about core labor issues like raising the minimum wage, reforming immigration laws and protecting workers' rights not to be exploited.”
The SEIU and AFSCME declined to comment on the unions' political activities. Both organizations have previously declined similar requests for information about campaign finance and lobbying activities.
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