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CAFTA Vote Not Haunting Democrats Yet

Of the 15 House Democrats who tempted the wrath of organized labor by voting for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in July, few appear worried that their vote will cost them at the polls next year.

In fact, of the four House Democrats who are considered potentially vulnerable in 2006 and also voted for CAFTA, none expressed concern that their vote will cost them in fundraising or boots on the ground when it comes time to get out the vote.

“We ran a primary and general election without labor in 2004 and have been planning for this for 2006,” said Colin Strother, a political consultant for Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). “You can’t miss what you never had.”

Cuellar is facing two primary challengers in the 28th district, and Texas AFL-CIO President Emmett Sheppard said the Congressman’s vote upset the unions in his district to the point that they will probably put their formidable get-out-the-vote operation — and fundraising — behind one of his Democratic opponents.

“I don’t think you win or lose an election on labor dollars — we don’t have enough money to do that,” Sheppard said. “But what we do have is a lot of bodies to get out there and volunteer time, and I think he’ll be one of the target races in Texas.”

Like Cuellar, Reps. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) are not concerned about a labor backlash, with spokesmen for each saying they voted to the satisfaction of those who matter most: the voters in their districts.

“The reality is, it is a vote that fit the district. It is district that is fiscally conservative and socially moderate — pro-business and pro-growth. That’s why she supported it,” said Bean spokesman Brian Herman. “She reflects the district in that respect.”

That might be true, but Change To Win, the coalition of unions, led by the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union, that defected from the AFL-CIO earlier this year, plans to make Democrats like Bean pay.

Change To Win will not endorse any of the CAFTA 15, and in cases where there is not a primary candidate facing them in next year’s race, they are considering recruiting candidates to run, said CTW communications director Anna Burger in an interview.

“We are looking at these races, and looking at what we’re going to do,” she said.

Political directors from the CTW affiliates are holding a retreat in November to determine, among other things, if they are going to turn off the funding spigot for Congressional members, like the CAFTA 15, who vote against labor’s interests.

Bill Looby, political director for the Illinois AFL-CIO, confirmed that unions in his state are upset with Bean. But he said it was unclear if that anger would translate into a lack of support for her re-election.

A review of Bean’s second and third quarter Federal Election Commission filings suggest that her position on CAFTA may have cost her labor donations, although she appears to have more than made up for it in donations from businesses and related interest groups.

In the second quarter, 15 of Bean’s 27 recorded contributions from political action committees came from entities that were identifiable as labor unions.

The Congresswoman’s third quarter FEC filing showed 101 such recorded contributions, but only seven donations from identifiable labor PACs, with four of them coming before her CAFTA vote.

Of Bean’s 101 third quarter PAC receipts, about 65 were made by businesses and business-interest organizations.

Bean “has around 9,000 individual donors — two thirds of her money comes from individuals. This is our priority,” Herman said. “Organized labor is a group, but we have never depended on any particular special interest group for fundraising.”

On the flip side, Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) probably has absolutely nothing to worry about. Serving in a Republican-performing district, he would probably be vulnerable if the GOP ever recruited a quality candidate to challenge him.

Kansas AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Wil Leiker understands that.

That’s why he is not angry with Moore for his yes vote on CAFTA, and plans to encourage all AFL-CIO affiliates in Kansas to endorse and tangibly support the Congressman next year.

“I would have liked him to vote differently, but that won’t deter me from encouraging my organization to endorse him next year,” Leiker said. “Most people understand he’s in a tough Republican area, and there are going to be some tough votes.”

Like Moore, Matheson has been re-elected repeatedly in a Republican leaning district, and could be vulnerable against the right candidate.

Accordingly, his communications director Alyson Heyrend said he voted his conscience, and in the best interest of Utah’s 2nd district, while continuing to stand with labor on issues like protecting Social Security.

“I think there are some people that remain disappointed; that’s just the way it is,” Heyrend said.

Utah AFL-CIO President Ed Mayne did not return a phone call requesting comment, but said in the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday that Matheson has paid a price for his vote, with few campaign contributions from labor.

“It’s not just a cyclical thing with donations suddenly dropping off,” Mayne said.

Matheson denied in the same story that he has seen fewer labor donations because of his position on CAFTA, and Heyrend noted that he is ahead of where he was two years ago in overall fundraising.

“His votes aren’t based on who gives him money, but on how he sees an issue in terms of Utah’s interest,” she said.