Fear of GOP takeover forces unions to back Dems critical of health

Fears that John Boehner will become the next Speaker of the House have prompted unions to rethink their opposition to Democrats who voted against the healthcare reform bill earlier this year.

The AFL-CIO released its first round of mailers in support of endangered Democrats this week. In it, the union sought to bolster Rep. Zack Space’s (D-Ohio) campaign with literature attacking his Republican opponent.

Space was the lone Democrat from Ohio’s congressional delegation to vote against the healthcare bill, and his position enraged labor groups.

But he’s not the only lawmaker who voted against the legislation to see union support trickle back his way. 

An affiliate group of the AFL-CIO, Working America, has endorsed Rep. Harry Teague (D-N.M.). And several unions, such as the New York State Public Employees Federation and United Federation of Teachers, have endorsed Rep. Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.).

The healthcare bill was a major item on labor’s legislative agenda. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka went to Capitol Hill to personally lobby members on the issue ahead of the March vote. As worries grew there wouldn’t be enough votes for passage, unions threatened Democratic lawmakers with primary challenges and non-support during the general election. 

But of the 34 Democrats who voted against the bill, none of them running for reelection lost in primaries this cycle.

Larry Scanlon, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told The Hill he sees more labor support coming for Democrats who voted against the bill due to concerns about the party losing control of the House.

“When the reality sets in and you are talking about John Boehner running the House, you have to start saying ‘Hey, we have to take a second look here.’ It’s what is called practical politics,” Scanlon said.

“Either you have 218 and you have the gavel or you don’t. If you are on the side that doesn’t have the gavel, bad things can happen to you,” he said.

AFSCME is also supporting Space and Teague in their reelection bids. Scanlon said the public sector union has donated the maximum amount to their campaigns and the two candidates are part of the labor group’s union member contact program.

Aruna Jain, a spokeswoman for Working America, said the group looked at Teague’s complete record, not just one vote, before deciding to back him.

“Obviously healthcare is an important issue, but working people in New Mexico endorse a candidate’s overall record, which includes looking at votes in support of things like the stimulus package, which funded more than 6,000 jobs in New Mexico, or votes to hold Wall Street accountable or things like making joining a union easier — all of which Teague supported,” Jain said.

The labor-affiliated group will be active in Teague’s district this fall, going door to door, calling and leafleting voters, talking about where the candidates stand on those issues.

Also supporting Teague is the New Mexico Federation of Labor-AFL-CIO. The group’s president, Christine Tujillo, said she was “disappointed” that Teague couldn’t vote for the bill, but “Harry has the courage of his convictions and is approachable and easy to work with.”

The AFL-CIO is also campaigning for Space, mailing a flier to Ohio union members blasting the lawmaker’s GOP opponent, Bob Gibbs, for not supporting the jobs bill Congress passed last month. That will be followed up by a federation phone call to the same union members who received the fliers.

Eddie Vale, an AFL-CIO spokesman, said the national federation follows the endorsements of its state affiliates.

“For all the races, it’s a decision by the states,” Vale said. “So when they endorse folks, we will support them. When they take passes on people, then we don’t.”

Scanlon said labor needs Democrats to hold onto districts like Space’s to keep the majority in place.

“It is the kind of district that is very hard to hold onto for the Democrats,” Scanlon said, “He fits the district … Sometimes you have to vote for the devil you know other than the devil you don’t know, or the devil you don’t want to know.”

Nevertheless, Space is still being shunned by other unions. For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is encouraging members not to vote for Space with its “Skip a Space” campaign. 

Other Democrats who voted against the healthcare reform bill have survived union-backed primary challenges. For example, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) won his primary despite the SEIU spending $290,000 in support of his challenger. Lynch, a former union official, was lobbied heavily by unions to support the bill, but voted against it. A third-party bid in protest of Rep. Larry Kissell’s (D-N.C.) vote against the bill ultimately fell apart.

After the divisive healthcare vote in March, the Democratic Party sought to tame its angry allies.

“We have made clear that targeting our candidates is not helpful,” Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “The stakes are high for working Americans and we simply cannot afford letting Republicans bring back the exact same disastrous economic agenda that drove the economy into a ditch.”

Further, a Democratic strategist said senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill made overtures to labor to avoid costly primaries.

McMahon was one of those members who angered union officials this spring by not voting for healthcare reform. At the time, Chris Shelton, a district vice president of the Communications Workers of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, went so far as to call him “Judas in Staten Island.”

But a New York-based Democratic campaign staffer said the state’s members expect the national affiliates will endorse McMahon and the others who voted against healthcare.

“We expect them to come around,” the staffer said. “But the locals, they are coming around.”

Two AFL-CIO state affiliates, the New York State Public Employees Federation (PEF) and the New York State United Teachers, have endorsed McMahon and a local chapter of the Communications Workers of America also supports him. He has not received the backing of the AFL-CIO’s full state federation, however.

“We endorsed him after deciding not to base our decision on one issue,” said Darcy Wells, a spokeswoman for PEF, which is the second-largest state-employee union in New York and has some 1,300 members in McMahon’s district. “We based our decision on his entire record.”

Still, the PEF hasn’t yet committed resources to McMahon’s campaign. “We concentrate our efforts on our high-priority campaigns and we are still developing that list,” Wells said.

Looking at labor’s overall election effort so far, unions have played little offense in trying to switch GOP seats to Democratic control. Instead, they are attempting to bolster the majority party’s defenses this election.

For example, only two Republican-controlled seats — held by Reps. Charles Djou (Hawaii) and Mark Kirk (Ill.), who is running for the Senate — are part of the AFL-CIO’s huge mailing effort this week targeting 26 House seats. More rounds of mail are expected, with the labor federation campaigning in 70 congressional districts in 26 states.

In addition, out of the 20 congressional districts in the nine states in which the group is operating, Working America activists are only contacting voters for three Republican-held seats — those of Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Erik Paulsen (Minn.) and Patrick Tiberi (Ohio).

The bulk of unions’ campaign efforts are for protecting Democrats elected in either the 2006 or 2008 elections. For example, AFSCME has made independent expenditures in support of endangered Reps. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), Mark Critz (D-Pa.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Mark Schauer (D-Mich.), according to the union’s political director.

“These last two classes of Democrats are holding onto seats that in a normal year would be Republican or toss-ups at least,” Scanlon said. “And when you add in a jobless recovery and people being angry, they are going to vent that anger at incumbents and vote them out.”

In fact, AFSCME has spent more than $834,000 on television and website ads as well as on direct-mail pieces against Boccieri’s Republican opponent, Jim Renacci, according to data provided by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

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