Who Will Win the Campaign Spending Arms Race?

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 10:32 AM EDT

Corporate-backed Republican groups have taken the lead in terms of outside spending for the vast majority of the election cycle. But labor unions are making an 11th-hour push to catch up, aided in part by the Citizens United decision that liberated both corporations and unions to use their own funds for ads. The Wall Street Journal reports that the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has now overtaken every other group—excluding the political parties—in terms of total spending it’s promised to make:

The 1.6 million-member AFSCME is spending a total of $87.5 million on the elections after tapping into a $16 million emergency account to help fortify the Democrats' hold on Congress...The union is spending heavily this year because "a lot of people are attacking public-sector workers as the problem," said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee. "We're spending big. And we're damn happy it's big. And our members are damn happy it's big—it's their money," he said.

AFSCME’s $87.6 million total in pledged election spending puts it ahead of both the Chamber of Commerce, which has promised to spend $75 million, and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads at $65 million.

But with only 10 days left in the election, it’s unclear whether labor has enough time to close close the gap. The New York Times points out that in terms of money spent so far, the Chamber of Commerce is the "top non-party spender," spending $21 million in ads and other electioneering communications as of mid-October, as compared to AFSCME’s $7.9 million (or the SEIU’s $10.6 million). And while the Chamber has committed most of its money to ads, a good chunk of AFSCME’s pledged total will also go toward its get out the vote operation and "member to member" communications within the union itself, as opposed to the public at large. As The Washington Independent's Jesse Zwick points out, determining "who's the biggest spender" in any election depends to a large degree on which numbers you look at and how you spin them.

Even if individual labor unions like AFSCME trump some of the biggest corporate-backed groups in terms of total spending in the end, they might not be celebrating the brave new world of campaign finance. The SEIU opposed Citizens United and pledged not to take advantage of the decision, arguing that corporations would vastly outspend the unions. After originally backing the ruling, the AFL-CIO has recently made similar noises. Though AFSCME has gone all out at the last minute, given the grim political landscape, they might not want to be forced into the same spending arms race the next time around.

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