Unions spend in bid to damage Romney

Several unions that back President Obama’s reelection bid are spending big in an effort to damage Mitt Romney in key GOP primary states.

Unions including The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are making ad buys to hit the Republican presidential contenders on issues key to their members, including immigration reform and the bailout of the auto industry. 

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The primary focus of the attacks, however, has been Romney, who appears likely to face off against Obama in the fall.

Larry Scanlon, AFSCME's political director, told The Hill that while Romney has yet to officially sow up the nomination, the general election season has begun.

"Our position is: We are in a general election now. We want voters to hear our message," Scanlon said. "We have endorsed Obama, and we're going to do what we can to get him reelected."

AFSCME, the country’s largest public sector union, spent $500,000 on Internet, television and radio ads to air in Ohio that target Romney before the state’s GOP presidential primary this coming Tuesday, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. Last month, the union also spent $1 million on Internet and television ads opposing Romney in Florida before that state’s GOP presidential primary.

Scanlon said the large expenditures were not intended to influence GOP contests, but rather to define Romney for all voters.

“We didn't have any expectations that we would influence the Republican presidential primary in a major way,” Scanlon said. “The point is that for that week or two in that state, voters will be tuned in and paying attention. We think it's a good opportunity to get our message out along these general election themes.”

Scanlon also said that unlike other GOP candidates, the ex-Massachusetts governor has concentrated on issues key to labor.

“Romney has been talking about our issues, workers' issues, and he's on the wrong side of those issues. So that's why we're going after him,” Scanlon said.

A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign said unions are attacking him because he has stood up to labor.

“Union bosses have repeatedly attacked Mitt Romney in this campaign because they know he will end the sweetheart deals they have enjoyed under President Obama. Mitt Romney has fought labor bosses before and he will fight them again,” said Andrea Saul, the Romney spokeswoman.

Other unions are also training their fire on Romney.

SEIU spent more than $86,000 on radio ads in Florida and Nevada that criticized the former Massachusetts governor on immigration. Brandon Davis, SEIU’s political director, said the union’s members took issue with Romney’s Spanish-language ads in the state. 

“He’s speaking with two faces here,” Davis said. “He's trying to say one thing in Spanish and one thing in English, and we couldn't let that go unchallenged.”

SEIU spent more than $86,000 on radio ads in Florida and Nevada that criticized the former Massachusetts governor on immigration. Brandon Davis, SEIU’s political director, said the union’s members took issue with Romney’s Spanish-language ad.

“His Spanish-language ads say Romney ‘believes in us,’ but his deeds speak for themselves,” the ad said, adding that Romney would veto the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some qualified illegal immigrants who enter the military or go to college.

The United Auto Workers, meanwhile, has been highly critical of Romney’s stance on government loans that Obama argues kept the auto industry alive.

On Feb. 24, union members held a rally outside Detroit’s Ford Field, where Romney was giving a speech on the economy. The UAW wanted to remind Romney that “he turned his back on an iconic American industry, the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan and millions of American jobs,” according to a press release.

The International Association of Machinists has been active in the GOP presidential primary as well. In January, the union spent $100,000 on a television ad buy in the Charleston, S.C. market, running during the week of the South Carolina primary.

“We watched a lot of Republican politicians parade through the state over the past year, bashing us and castigating the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] for enforcing the law as it's written,” said Rick Sloan, the Machinists’ communications director. “We just wanted to remind folks that when workers stand together, we win, they lose.”

The Machinists’ television ad didn’t name-check Romney but did highlight a quote from him regarding “union stooges” at the NLRB.

Republican candidates were taking issue with the labor board’s complaint against Boeing for allegedly retaliating against union workers.

The complaint, stemming from a Machinists’ grievance, was filed after the company started a new production line for its 787 Dreamliner jet in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The move came after Boeing executives expressed worry about stoppages at their unionized operations in the state of Washington. The NLRB alleged the company was penalizing union workers.

Several GOP presidential candidates visited the South Carolina facility in question, including Romney. The labor board has since dropped the complaint against Boeing after the Machinists and Boeing came to a new agreement.

Beyond the television ad, Sloan said he wasn’t sure if his union would involve itself more in the GOP presidential primary.

“I think the larger unions will continue to play. I'm not sure we will. We had a specific reason to get into the South Carolina primary,” Sloan said.

Scanlon of AFCSME said he doesn’t know if the public sector union will continue to spend money pivoting off the GOP presidential primary.

“It will be based on what are the hot issues for that state and whether we can reach voters there,” Scanlon said. “Union density plays into it as well.”