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AFSCME Vows to Defend Incumbents

Despite the fact that the presidential election is going to dominate political headlines between now and Election Day 2008, a vital ally of Congressional Democrats vowed last week not to lose sight of the importance of preserving the party’s new majorities on Capitol Hill.

“We’re talking seriously about an incumbent protection agency, and I’m the sheriff of that,” Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said in an interview.

During the 2006 midterm elections, AFSCME spent $35 million and made more than 8 million phone calls to help Democrats seize control of Congress and win key gubernatorial elections. McEntee said planning already is under way to boost Democratic incumbents and challengers this cycle, though he said it is way too early to say what kind of resources AFSCME will be able to dedicate to Senate and House elections.

The powerful public employee union will be at the heart of the Democratic presidential campaign during the next several days as it co-sponsors a candidate forum in Carson City, Nev., on Feb. 21. All of the declared presidential contenders except Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are scheduled to attend.

For AFSCME, the forum marks the start of a lengthy process for vetting the presidential candidates, with the union expected to bestow its coveted endorsement sometime in the fall.

McEntee said the choice is more difficult than ever this cycle because the union has so many allies running. In the previous White House cycle, AFSCME endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) in the fall of 2003, helping to fuel the insurgent candidate’s momentum until his campaign collapsed in December and January.

The location of the forum is no accident. McEntee, like many Democratic strategists, said he sees the Mountain West as fertile territory for the party in 2008 and beyond. He predicted that the Democratic White House nominee would be favored to win next year in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, three states President Bush carried in 2004.

“It’s a gold mine for them,” McEntee said. “I think it’s theirs to lose.”

McEntee also said that Democrats’ decision to hold their national convention in Denver next year should help their candidates throughout the region, particularly in the open-seat Colorado Senate race.

McEntee said AFSCME is poised to play a big role in that race and other Colorado contests next year. With a new Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature, Colorado is expected to adopt collective bargaining for its state employees either this year or in 2007, McEntee said, strengthening the union’s political position throughout the state.

The Republican National Convention will be held in a state where there will be another hard-fought Senate election next year — Minnesota. McEntee said AFSCME is determined to defeat Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) next year.

“When he was the mayor [of St. Paul], he treated our people poorly,” he said. “They do not care for him.”

McEntee also called Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) one of the most vulnerable Senators up for re-election in 2008 and predicted that the Democrats can build on their 51-49 seat majority in the upcoming cycle.

But McEntee conceded he is worried about the Democrats’ ability to expand on — and even maintain — their majority in the House, noting that some of the new Democratic House Members sit in districts that trend Republican, especially in presidential years.

“You could lose that 31-[seat margin] in a wisp,” he said.

Yet McEntee said AFSCME is gaining strength in some of the districts where Democratic freshmen could be endangered. He cited Kansas, where Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) is seeking re-election in a district that Bush won with 59 percent of the vote in 2004, as a prime example. McEntee said Boyda hugged him at the recent House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va., because of the work AFSCME did — and will continue to do — on her behalf.

But McEntee understands that Democratic activists will be preoccupied with the White House campaign, and he said it is up to groups like his to remind them of the importance of the Congressional races.

“The thing is planning and accepting that as a way of life,” he said.

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