Labor Struggles to Play Catch Up in Spending War

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 11:45 AM EDT

Fundraising off Democratic attacks on their anonymous donors, outside Republican groups are launching a massive, $50 million ad blitz this week that will exceed what the National Republican Congressional Committee plans to spend on TV ads for the entire election, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The coordinated effort, which the groups have dubbed the "House surge strategy," tops what the official Republican House election committee expects to spend on television ads for the entire contest. It is aimed at the few dozen competitive races where Democratic candidates have significantly more money in the bank than their Republican opponents, eating into one of the Democrats' last financial advantages.

In individual races, such outside money has not only outstripped what the national GOP has spent, but also what the candidates themselves have on hand:

In the Denver suburbs, a $1.5 million ad purchase by the American Action Network will level the playing field for Republican Ryan Frazier, who is taking on two-term Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter. Mr. Frazier had only $252,000 on hand as of July 21, while Mr. Perlmutter had a war chest of $1.3 million.

Labor unions—generally the most reliable and well-funded Democratic allies—are trying to bridge the gap by pouring their own money into swing races. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for example, announced Wednesday that it will be spending over $300,000 on a TV ad buy attacking the Republican opponent of Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) on his support for free trade. The problem is that labor's dollars are being stretched, too, by the Democrats' waning prospects across the country. As the Hotline points out, unions weren't even expected to make a big buy in Hare's district, which had been considered a fairly safe Democratic seat, but the Republican surge has put them on the defense there as well.

There's no doubt that most endangered Democrats will welcome whatever help they can get, as the national Democratic election committees have cut off spending in districts they view as unwinnable to prioritize their efforts elsewhere. But labor groups are trailing their big Republican counterparts in terms of overall ad spending: the SEIU has spent a total of $6.3 million on ad buys and the American Federation for State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has spent $7.1 million so far. By comparison, the Chamber has spent $20 million, and American Crossroads has dropped $13.5 million—and that's only what's been reported so far, before the blizzard of spending that accompanies the final weeks of any election.

The yawning spending gap seems to have convinced labor groups that the new campaign finance landscape isn't working to their advantage after all. The AFL-CIO originally supported the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, as the ruling lifted spending restrictions for both corporations and labor unions, and was wary about supporting campaign finance legislation that would require greater donor disclosure.

But having watched the ascendancy of outside GOP goliaths like American Crossroads, labor's holdouts seemed to have changed their tune: AFL-CIO Richard Trumka said this week that he would unabashedly support greater disclosure requirements. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the argument for campaign finance reform, whatever its merits, doesn't seem to be a winning message that will help the Dems catch up in the last stretch of this election cycle—though maybe it could help them change the rules for the next one.