Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., should not have won reelection in 2010. His poll ratings were in the dumps, Republican nominee Sharron Angle had plenty of money, and voters everywhere were eager to vote out any incumbent.
And yet Reid won—by a surprisingly large margin—because of an underlying advantage that aided the few Democrats who survived the Republican wave: Democrats are better at turning out their voters than Republicans.
It is an oft-whispered complaint among Republicans in the party’s upper echelons. The once-vaunted 72-hour program is no longer the best in the business. Instead, thanks to the proliferation of early and absentee voting, Democrats have been able to build programs that spend a month turning out voters and banking ballots, rather than simply focusing on a rush during the last three days of a campaign.
The millions of dollars that Republican-friendly outside organizations are pouring into television advertising has a positive impact, but it’s not enough to overcome Democrats’ superior turnout operations. Once the polls open on Election Day, once the persuadable voters have been persuaded, Democrats in swing districts can build a large, sometimes insurmountable, lead.
To build that lead, Democrats depend on a key portion of their coalition: unions. Instead of spending their millions on television advertising, unions frequently focus on turnout operations. That’s why Republican-led initiatives to attack union funding erupting in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and in other states are smart moves for the GOP—and dangerous for Democrats.
Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip some collective-bargaining rights from unions is the most organized attack on union rights in a generation. Not since President Reagan fired the nation’s air traffic controllers have unions faced a starker threat. And, thanks to Republican gains in state legislative contests—an often-overlooked and yet stunningly widespread victory in 2010—Walker’s crusade is likely to succeed, either this year or next. That could set off dominos where Republicans control both state legislatures and governors' mansions.
“The strategy for Democrats has been public union growth. If we’re able to put any restraint on public union growth, it will put a significant restraint on their political clout,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of UnionRefund.org, a group that works to inhibit unions’ political spending.
“The debate has come to a head. We’re out of money. All these states are running into deficit situations, and this is the perfect time to address these issues.”
Consider how crucial unions are to the Democratic coalition. As Republican-allied groups like American Crossroads and the American Action Network poured millions into television advertising, the single-largest outside actor in the 2010 elections was the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
AFSCME spent $87.5 million on the 2010 elections, an amount the Wall Street Journal calculated as about 30 percent of all spending for Democrats by outside groups. The Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association combined to spend another $84 million for Democrats, more than even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent during the midterms.
All three unions represent millions of the public-sector employees who are at risk of losing collective-bargaining rights in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. And all three, along with the rest of Big Labor, are spending big money on lobbying and public relations campaigns to defeat those legislative proposals.
Spokespeople for several unions declined to say just how much they are spending in Wisconsin, for fear of revealing strategy and tactics to their Republican rivals, but many made clear just how critical their support is for Democratic candidates.
“Working families are proud to be active participants in our democratic process supporting candidates who will fight for them. Members don’t just vote, they are the grassroots activists who make phone calls, knock on doors, and leaflet their worksites,” said Eddie Vale, the AFL-CIO’s political communications director, who is himself on the ground in Wisconsin.
If unions fail to stop the GOP assault, Republican victories would represent a major chink in the Democratic armor. A loss of some collective-bargaining rights means a speedier decline in membership. In turn, that means fewer dues-paying members to fund political activities in 2012 and beyond.
But Republicans don’t even need to win every legislative battle to sap union resources. The battles themselves can suck up money that might otherwise go to turnout operations for Democratic candidates. The money spent on the public relations battle in Wisconsin alone, on the union side, is likely in the millions of dollars. That similar legislation is cropping up in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere—even though the campaigns will be far less cost-consuming—will only add to the tab.
“They’re obviously using up a tremendous amount of resources fighting these political battles,” Anuzis said.
Democrats, on the other hand, have not taken the opportunity to grow union ranks at the same time Republicans are trying to cut membership roles. The effort in Wisconsin and elsewhere “is a frontal assault on Democrats,” said one Democratic strategist who has been on the front lines of the party’s political efforts in recent years.
“Democrats had their opportunity to pass [the Employee Free Choice Act,] which would have grown union ranks, but failed to do it when we controlled all three branches. Republicans, on the other hand, are not afraid to use legislation to consolidate power."
Even if unions begin losing funding in short order, it is unlikely to seriously impact the 2012 elections. President Obama demonstrated in 2008 that he has perhaps the single-most capable field operation in political history. But 2012 will likely be the last time Obama runs for political office, and without his organization on the ground, unions should play an even bigger role in the Democratic Party’s future.
But Walker and other Republicans might have figured out the way to level the playing field: Instead of bolstering their own field operations, wins by anti-union forces could signal serious, and lasting, setbacks for the Democratic Party.