Dems fear union cash drain in Wisconsin

Organized labor’s plans to spend heavily to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has sparked angst on the left that the effort will come at the expense of Democrats in other states. 

The funding disparity between groups allied with either Republicans or Democrats is one of the biggest concerns for New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist. 

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Unions have made ousting Walker a top priority and are poised to spend heavily in Wisconsin. But Democratic strategists and some senior political experts within the labor movement believe the initiative should have been launched before the November presidential election. 

Labor officials are also looking at investing resources in Indiana, a red-leaning state, to battle controversial right-to-work legislation backed by Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). 

But the Wisconsin fight will consume far more resources. This is a stomach-churning prospect for Democrats and their allies because the labor expenditures could come just months before the general election, when money will be needed for more important battlegrounds such as Ohio and Florida. 

“Some were asking us whether we could wait until after the election, but we can’t. This is too big a deal,” said one labor official.

The labor official told The Hil that Democrats have questioned the timing of a massive spending campaign in Wisconsin. 

While Schumer views the funding imbalance between liberal and conservative third-party groups as a major concern, his spokesman said, "Sen. Schumer has never expressed any reservations whatsoever about the recall effort in Wisconsin. In face, he supports it."

A decision by labor unions to spend millions on a state-level political battle means Democrats will have that much less outside money helping President Obama and congressional candidates this fall. 

The Wisconsin endeavor could help Democrats retain retiring Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D-Wis.) seat, but there are only two House races — Reps. Sean Duffy (R) and Reid Ribble (R) — in the state that are competitive, according to The Cook Political Report.

Labor leaders believe the Walker race has important national implications, even if it does not appear to have a direct impact on Obama’s reelection. They believe it will send a strong message to other Republican governors to think twice about pushing the anti-labor reforms that Walker aggressively championed. 

And labor leaders have not been thrilled with Obama’s support for their agenda, even if he has taken a more populist tone in recent weeks. 

They were disappointed by the decision to hire William Daley, a former executive at JPMorgan Chase, as White House chief of staff and by the passage of the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements. 

The International Association of Firefighters, the nation’s biggest union of firefighters, froze contributions to federal candidates last spring because of frustrations that Democrats were not doing more to fight for its priorities. The union slowly resumed its giving in December. 

Democratic strategists expect third-party conservative groups to heavily outspend their left-leaning counterparts. 

In 2010, third-party groups reported spending $98.5 million to help Senate Republican candidates and only $38.1 million on behalf of Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. Outside groups spent $86 million to support House Republican candidates and $49.3 million to protect Democrats. 

“Conservative groups have a two-year head start, having done much more in 2010. I don’t think Democratic groups are looking to match conservative groups dollar for dollar,” said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super-PAC. 

Mollineau, however, said Democratic political groups would still be effective, even with fewer resources. 

“We need enough money to be competitive in the states. We are strategically better at spending money and getting our message out. It’s not about who has the most money but having enough money to combat Republican smears coming from Karl Rove and some of the other groups,” he said, referring to former President George W. Bush’s political adviser. 

Democrats believe Republican-allied groups will have more money in their war chests because of the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, which lifted curbs on corporate political activity. 

The approaching deluge of outside group spending has spurred Democratic lawmakers to explore options to reverse the court’s decision.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) will attend a panel discussion in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Tuesday to review constitutional remedies to overturn the Citizens United decision.  

Passage of legislation this year, however, is unlikely.

Conservative third-party groups such as Americans for Prosperity have already begun pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Wisconsin to fight the recall effort. State Democrats expect unions to step up their involvement as the election draws near. 

“I expect labor will be involved in the fight in Wisconsin because they represent tens of thousands of Wisconsinites,” said Graeme Zielinski, communications director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. 

The mobilization of national labor unions will be needed because, as Zielinski noted, Wisconsin election law allows the subject of a recall election to raise unlimited amounts of corporate money. 

Organizers last week submitted more than a million signatures to initiate an election to recall Walker.

They expect Walker to prolong the verification of signatories to give himself more time to raise money. The process is supposed to be completed within 60 days though could take longer.

It’s unclear whether there will be a Democratic primary, but if there is one, it will last about six weeks. The general election campaign to replace Walker is expected to span a month.

 Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive, is the only Democrat who has announced plans to run.

An expensive fight in Wisconsin is a burden for pro-Democratic groups and labor unions that are expecting to be outgunned by conservative advocacy groups in races around the nation. 

“From the vantage point of the AFL-CIO, we expect to be outspent. We always expect to be outspend, but we think the margin of being outspent is greater in 2012 than it’s ever been before,” said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. 

Hauser declined to comment on the union’s plans in Wisconsin. 

“Whatever decisions we make eventually in Wisconsin will be driven by Wisconsin working people,” he said. 

This article was updated on Jan. 24 at 11:10 p.m. to include a statement from a Schumer spokesman.