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Top labor union aims to topple six GOP governors: payback or big risk?

For 2014, the AFL-CIO is targeting Republican governors in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which have signed bills curbing union rights. But big-spending GOP 'super PACs' could stand in the way.

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Waging fights on so many fronts not only eroded union resources, but it also created internal debate, and even strife, about how unions should focus their priorities, says Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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“It’s difficult to have political influence you want to have in moving legislation and opposing legislation when the institutions themselves are fighting for the right to actually exist. You can’t push forward with any legislation when you’re constantly playing defense,” says Professor Bruno.

One big challenge the unions faced in those fights – and continue to face – is being outspent by the competition. The AFL-CIO raised about $22 million during the 2012 election cycle through the Workers Voice, its political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That puts it in the top tier for "super PACs" during that period, but the sum is already overshadowed by money Republicans have raised this year alone.

The Republican Governors Association reported last week it raised $23.6 million in the first half of 2013, half of what the Democratic Governors Association raised during that period. The RGA says the money puts it “in a strong position to help re-elect Republican governors … over the next 15 months.” One of its greatest benefactors: conservative billionaire David Koch, who donated at least $1 million.

“Republican governors are driving America’s comeback by balancing budgets, creating jobs, improving education, and pursuing free market solutions to the challenges facing our states," said RGA Chairman Bobby Jindal, in a statement. "The effective leadership of 30 Republican governors across the nation stands in stark contrast to the gridlock and absence of leadership in Washington, D.C.”

The failed recall of Walker in Wisconsin last year “woke unions up to the fact that just spending a of of money isn’t going to solve the problem,” says Mr. Peterson. “That’s a fight they can’t win. Supporters of Walker and his wing of the party have a lot more money than the unions could ever hope to raise.”

That is why Hauser says the AFL-CIO is planning an “investment in human capital” to win in 2014, rather than opening the checkbook. “This is not about spending more money,” he says.

The key to its efforts will be in grass-roots organizing: using databases to target voters and tapping social media to “developing people’s skills and their comfort level in talking about politics," Hauser says.

This time, the aim is to build structure and training, to "rebuild the muscle of community engagement about political issues," he says. “One of the things we feel has been a problem over the last few generations is an erosion of people talking to friends, neighbors, and colleagues about politics. Communication has been listening to radio or passively watching television. We think politics are better, left, right, or center, when people are talking to people. The stakes are so high, people need to understand they can make a difference.”

Unions are also likely to create alliances with groups outside labor who may feel just as disenfranchised due to state rollbacks to abortion rights, civil voting rights, and other issues by the same Republican governors.

“They can build a relationship with other constituencies and be part of a broader democracy initiative and, if you push that, then you can make a difference. Because in a smaller contained space, while big money obviously matters, you can blunt the money difference,” says Bruno.

However, others caution unions against directing their efforts into fights where the incumbent governor is not necessarily vulnerable. That includes Wisconsin, where Walker has no obvious challenger and where he remains popular, according to recent polling.

“Wisconsin is not the state I would be watching. The real ‘tell’ is Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. If Republicans manage to hold onto even two of the three, the unions are toast,” says Peterson.

“That’s the thing unions have to be careful about: spreading themselves out too much or picking races they have no chances of winning. If they do that, they’re going to look weak,” he says. “And looking weak is a precursor to being weak.”

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