Labor increases spending on ads in midterm campaign home stretch

Unions are joining the air war of radio and television ads surrounding this year's midterm election.

Over the last week, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent at least $200,000 on billboard signs, direct mail and radio ads, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. Those funds were for attacks against Republican opponents of several vulnerable House Democrats as well as against Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is running for retiring Sen. Kit Bond's (R-Mo.) seat.

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That is about a fifth of SEIU’s spending on campaign ads so far for the general election — now totaling at least $1.3 million since mid-September — according to FEC records filed by Oct. 14.

Though small in size compared to outside spending by Republican-leaning groups — American Crossroads and its affiliate, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, have spent close to $20 million so far — the more the labor movement comes to the aid of its traditional Democratic allies, the better chance the party has at keeping its majorities in Congress during a tough election climate.

Some Democratic lawmakers whom SEIU has helped out so far include endangered Reps. John Boccieri (Ohio), Phil Hare (Ill.), Tom Perriello (Va.), Mark Schauer (Mich.), Betty Sutton (Ohio) and Dina Titus (Nev.), according to FEC records. In addition, the union has spent about $100,000 for radio ads in support of Cedric Richmond, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.).

“This election is a clear choice,” said Teddy Davis, a SEIU spokesman. “One side wants to strengthen the middle class and put people back to work. The other side wants to turn Social Security over to Wall Street, end Medicare as we know it and abolish the minimum wage.”

SEIU is also planning to weigh in on several more House races and is already campaigning for its candidates in Senate and gubernatorial races.

Other unions have gone up earlier with radio and television ads in support of Democratic candidates.

For example, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has spent at least $5.2 million on the general election so far. The public-sector union first went up with ads early August, according to FEC records.

“It is important. It is vital to get your message out there,” said Ricky Feller, AFSCME’s associate political director. “The bulk of our spending will be on media.”

Along with Blunt, AFSCME has taken aim at Dino Rossi, Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) Republican opponent, with a $200,000 television ad buy. The union also has sent out direct mail and gone up with radio and television ads targeting several GOP challengers, including those facing Boccieri, Schauer, Titus as well as endangered Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper and Steve Kagen (D-Wis.).

Feller said AFSCME began its ad campaign in August — earlier than prior election years — in order to define some of the races as soon as possible. The union has also monitored outside spending by Republican-leaning groups to know which candidates might need help.

“We don’t have as much as they do. They pay out more in bonuses than we do in an election year,” Feller said. Nevertheless, the union plans to spend more, paying for radio and television ads in about a dozen races.

“My job is to move the needle. So when I go in, I go in deep,” Feller said.

The American Federation of Teachers has also started its campaign effort. According to FEC records, the union has spent at least $430,000 on canvassers in support of several Democrats, including Richmond, Reps. John Carney (D-Pa.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), as well as a direct mail initiative for Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.).

But a big part of the labor movement’s election-year politicking will be the so-called ground game: having organizers go neighborhood to neighborhood, knocking on doors, leafleting work sites, to turn out the Democratic vote.

Already, the AFL-CIO estimates it has had significant success in contacting voters. By Oct. 2, the labor federation said its members had knocked on more than 100,000 doors with more than 5,000 volunteers from 300 canvassing locations. They also have distributed 17.5 million fliers at worksites and sent 14.5 million pieces of direct mail.

AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, Working America, is playing a major role in that effort. The group has spent at least $580,000 on paid organizers, covering their salaries, car rentals and gas, according to FEC records.

“We can go straight to their doors and we have conversations with them that are really transformative,” said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, calling her group “a trusted messenger.”

The group is talking to voters in nine different states, covering about 20 congressional districts and a half-dozen Senate races.

Nussbaum said organizers are reporting back that voters have become frustrated with the flood of negative election-year advertising.

“What organizers are telling us in the field is that voters are not being swayed so much by the advertising. They are throwing their hands up in the air,” Nussbaum said.