WASHINGTON -- Leaders of the largest U.S. labor federation announced yesterday that they will spend more money this year than ever before to get voters to the polls in a midterm election that they hope will return Democrats to power in Congress.
"This Labor Day, it appears that a 'perfect storm' is gathering that may well sweep away Republican control of the Congress this fall," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
Republican voter mobilization efforts were credited with big GOP wins in 2004 and 2002. With voter discontent on the rise, Democrats are hoping to regain ground this fall, and labor unions - the traditional backbone of Democratic voter organizing - are expected to play a critical role.
Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO political director, said the federation will spend $40 million on its voter turnout effort this year, up from $35 million in the last midterm election.
"This election, as everyone knows, is about turnout," Ackerman said. "In many cases, we may well prove to be the decisive factor" in hard-fought races.
Tracy Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said her party is not worried.
"Building on our success from 2004, we are running a massive voter turnout operation that is as precise as has ever been seen in American politics," Schmitt said. "We know it works, and we have been fine-tuning our tactics to ensure we get our voters to the polls on Election Day."
Last year, seven member unions defected from the AFL-CIO - including the nation's largest, the Service Employees International Union - and formed a rival coalition, Change to Win. Both groups said the split would not hamper voter mobilization efforts because they are cooperating in many regions to support their preferred candidates, nearly all of whom are Democrats.
"In some places, we're working very closely together, and in other places we're working on parallel tracks," said Carole Florman, communications director of Change to Win. "You have a very complex landscape but a shared goal of working to help candidates who will stand up for working families."
Both labor groups released polling data concluding that economic issues such as wage stagnation, health care costs and gasoline prices will be more important than the Iraq war in spurring Democratic and swing voters to go to the polls.
"Economic trends have strained working families to the breaking point," Sweeney said. "Workers are not sharing in the wealth they helped create, and our nation's economic recovery has not been a recovery for workers at all."
The role of labor unions in Democratic turnout has been exaggerated in past elections, said Charles Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst who publishes The Cook Political Report. No matter which party is better organized, the critical factor will not be how many voters go to the polls but which voters don't, he said.
"My hunch is that in this election, the bigger story is whether disillusioned Republicans stay home," Cook said. "I think Republicans are going to be faced with having a terrific organization and a disillusioned electorate."
Cook said Democrats don't seem as well organized as they were in the 2004 presidential election. For that campaign, Democrats formed an umbrella group, America Coming Together, to coordinate voter mobilization efforts. This time, there is no umbrella group, and the labor and party efforts are being directed independently.
"What they are doing is putting together a patchwork," Cook said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said improved Democratic field operations for getting out the vote would help deliver control of Congress to his party. He noted that Republicans have been especially successful recently in the final days before the polls open.
"One of the ways that they have won elections at the last minute is in terms of field operations," Schumer said this week. "We have planned a detailed field operation for the last year and a half in many of the battleground states."
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.