Labor Focuses on Key States
Officials Set to Pour Big Money Into Florida, Missouri and Ohio
Even as President Bush begins ramping up his campaign for a second term, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Political Director Karen Ackerman and other top federation officials have targeted Missouri, Ohio and Florida as the keys to making sure a Democrat sits in the Oval Office beginning in January 2005.
Convinced that the only way to defeat Bush is to keep labor’s turnout at the same high levels it was in 2000, when more than one-quarter of all voters came from union households, Sweeney has decided to pour money and manpower initially into those three battleground states, although the list of swing states will broaden as Election Day nears.
Along with helping to funnel millions of dollars into 527 nonprofit organizations such as America Coming Together that will handle voter registration and get-out-the-vote programs run by the Democratic National Committee in the past, the AFL-CIO is also rushing to sign up “tens of thousands” of new members, according to several labor insiders. These new members, many of whom have never belonged to a traditional labor organization before, are signed up for a free union called Working America that some GOP campaign-finance experts speculate is a way around union spending limits for political activities, as well as a potential source of campaign contributions for AFL-CIO coffers.
The broad federation effort — unveiled at a recent all-hands meeting by Sweeney, Ackerman and Richard Trumka, another top AFL-CIO official — demonstrates the high stakes organized labor is playing for this fall.
Sweeney, who has called the Bush administration “a horror” for organized labor, vowed that the AFL-CIO itself and its hundreds of employees will serve as a model for what other unions should do in mounting a political program. Sweeney has already declared that the AFL-CIO expects to spend at least $35 million this cycle on GOTV and voter education efforts, and now that it has formally endorsed Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) for the Democratic nomination, the federation is shifting into high gear.
“It was like a general calling out the cooks and clerks and everybody for a battle. It was amazing,” said one AFL-CIO insider who attended the Feb. 6 briefing.
Lane Windham, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, declined to discuss the briefing or specifics of the federation’s political plans.
But Windham noted that the AFL-CIO leadership “generally agreed” with the view of political experts on which states are up for grabs in November and will make its decisions on where to put its resources accordingly.
In a detailed analysis presented to rank-and-file employees and the AFL-CIO political committee, chaired by American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee, Ackerman said union political strategists view the presidential contest as extremely tight, with essentially little changed from the 2000 race between Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore.
Bush retains a core of support among union members of at least 18 percent — the figure is higher in some states — according to internal AFL-CIO polling, which means that Sweeney and the other labor leaders will have to “lock down” the rest of the union vote to build a strong base of support for the eventual Democratic nominee.
“It’s tough, but the plan they have is doable,” said a union official who has seen Ackerman’s analysis.
Bush was victorious in Ohio, Missouri and Florida last cycle, although he did not get more than 50 percent of the vote in any of the three.
Bush won Ohio by a slim 50 percent to 46 percent margin, although the Gore campaign actually stopped running ads in the Buckeye State weeks before the election, a move that angered some Democratic strategists. Bush carried Missouri 50 percent to 47 percent, with Republicans just surviving a last-minute GOTV effort in St. Louis. Florida, of course, became the epicenter of the Bush-Gore struggle, and Bush eventually triumphed in the Sunshine State by just 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast, and only after a tense recount battle that required intervention by the Supreme Court.
The combined 57 electoral votes from those three states represented more than one-fifth of Bush’s 271 total.
Ohio: Turnout Key
Ohio is already getting serious attention from the AFL-CIO. The heavily unionized state has lost roughly 250,000 jobs since Bush was sworn into office, with more than two-thirds of those losses coming in the manufacturing sector. Gov. Bob Taft (R) is highly unpopular thanks to the poor economy and tax increases under his watch, and the Bush-Cheney campaign will make extensive efforts to boost the president’s image there on its own. The GOP holds all of the key statewide offices, and Sen. George Voinovich (R) is strongly favored to win a second term in November, while Democrats control the big cities. GOP strategists are aware that no presidential incumbent or candidate from their party has won the White House without carrying Ohio.
Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said he formed a task force designed to deliver the state to Bush’s opponent in 2004 even before the 2002 midterm elections, and he predicted that labor will exceed its turnout rates from the most recent presidential campaign, when 36 percent of Ohio voters hailed from union households.
Burga would not discuss details of the AFL-CIO program in the state but said he has “never seen such enthusiasm” among rank-and-file union members.
Burga held a conference on the November elections two months back that was attended by more than 900 labor activists and said that he is building a “more extensive [GOTV] effort than ever before.” Burga added that Republicans had traditionally relied on TV advertising, which won’t be enough to defeat the union GOTV blitz.
ACT, which is funded by both labor and wealthy pro-Democratic supporters, including billionaire George Soros, has registered more than 12,000 new voters in Cleveland alone.
But Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), chairwoman of House Republican Conference, said the Bush-Cheney campaign is prepared to counter any ground efforts by the AFL-CIO in the Buckeye State. Bush himself has visited the state at least 14 times since being sworn in, the last coming on the heels of his State of the Union address.
“I don’t think the AFL-CIO has a head of steam that the Bush-Cheney campaign can’t match,” said Pryce, who echoed the themes that will become the rallying cry of the president’s re-election run — the economy is on the road to recovery thanks to the president’s tax policies and that only Bush has the experience to prosecute the global war on terrorism successfully.
“It’s really important that we don’t change the horse in the middle of the stream,” Pryce said.
Missouri: Registering Voters
In Missouri, America Coming Together, which is run by Ellen Malcolm of EMILY’s List, and other pro-Democratic groups have registered more than 46,000 new voters in St. Louis and Kansas City, a total that has threatened to overwhelm election officials there.
The two groups hope to snare another 50,000 in coming months, and that effort will be paired with AFL-CIO registration programs.
The Republican National Committee has plans to register more than 50,000 new voters in Missouri this year as well, and the state will be closely contested. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, will be in Missouri on Friday to launch a pro-Bush veterans’ group and make an appearance at a Lincoln Day dinner. Bush has visited the state more than a dozen times, putting it with Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida as the most popular presidential destinations.
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) is seeking a fourth term and is expected to win, while Democrats are mired in a tough gubernatorial primary fight.
Florida: Down to the Wire
The AFL-CIO is eyeing the hundreds of thousands of former union members who have now retired to Florida as a source of new voters, and union leaders hope to build upon the anger among Democrats in that state over the 2000 recount fight.
ACT’s registration there has netted only “several thousand” new voters so far.
With an open Senate seat in play and a strong pro-Bush effort led by the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the Sunshine State is likely to go down to the wire again. Both Racicot and Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager, will be in Florida soon, according to campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Stanzel said the Bush-Cheney campaign has trained 9,000 coordinators for counties, townships and precincts nationwide at more than 100 training sessions, and has more than 163,000 volunteers signed up overall.
“The Bush-Cheney campaign is developing a very extensive [GOTV] network,” said Stanzel.
However, one of the newest elements in the AFL-CIO effort involves the no-cost-to-join Working America union. One AFL-CIO source said the federation has “hundreds of people” going door-to-door on the project throughout swing states, and Sweeney himself said he would like to sign up 1 million members to the new union this cycle.
Because they are union members, the AFL-CIO will not have to use funds dedicated for political activities to communicate with these new members. The AFL-CIO can also solicit PAC donations from them. Those two facts suggested to one GOP campaign expert that the organization “was just a way around McCain-Feingold restrictions.”
But the AFL-CIO’s Windham defended the organization as legitimate and claimed the group “has nothing to do with our political program.”
Windham admitted that “in some cases, people have made donations to Working America” upon signing up with the organization but insisted it “is not tied to our political activities.”