Tuesday, August 31, 2010

California labor and the fall elections

Labor's campaign in California has been an ambitious mix of trying to persuade swing voters while at the same time trying to mobilize those Democrats who don't often vote in nonpresidential elections.

Harold Meyerson
August 31, 2010
Just how blue will California be this November? Will this Democratic state return Barbara Boxer to the Senate and Jerry Brown to the statehouse, or will their mega-funded GOP opponents ride the red tide of what's looking to be a strong Republican year into office?
Let's start with the governor's race. Brown has been no more than intermittently visible this year, husbanding his limited funds for an autumnal media blitz. Meg Whitman, by contrast, has bought into every media market known to humankind. By the normal rules of politics, she should have opened a lead on the late-starting Brown. But by the measure of almost every poll, she hasn't.
Part of the reason for that is California's union movement, which has put up ads and begun its field program earlier than ever this year to counter Whitman's spending advantage. As Seema Mehta reported in Monday's Times, labor has already spent $14 million on advertising and getting its ground game in place.

"In 2006, [Democratic gubernatorial nominee] Phil Angelides was in a 15-point hole by Labor Day," said Courtni Pugh, who heads up some state political programs for the Service Employees International Union, recalling how Anglides' inability to go on the air that summer gave the far-better-funded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a decisive advantage before labor had even begun its efforts on Angelides' behalf. "This time," she continued, "we knew we had to go on the air the day after the primary, not the day after Labor Day."
Labor's campaign in California has been an ambitious mix of trying to persuade swing voters while at the same time trying to mobilize those Democrats who don't often vote in nonpresidential elections. Much of labor's strategy to sway swing voters is modeled on the national AFL-CIO's Working America project, which targets white, blue-collar workers with economically populist messages. The larger piece of the program, though — dictated by California's demographics — targets African American and, most especially, Latino voters, who will vote Democratic provided they are motivated to vote at all.
In California, such voters present a huge opportunity. Steve Rosenthal, a Washington-based political consultant who is generally regarded as one of the Democrats' preeminent strategists, has calculated that the number of Latino, African American and young California voters who voted in November 2008 — but not in some or all of the previous elections going back to 2004 — is a mind-boggling 3,585,000. The total number of Californians expected to vote this November is in the 9 million to 10 million range, so getting a large share of those sometime voters to the polls is the central challenge facing California Democrats.
The conventional wisdom on midterm elections is that turnout is always going to be low. State Democrats, however, are confident they can change that, chiefly because California is home to the most politically potent labor movement in the nation, with a strong record of turning out Latino voters for Democratic candidates and causes. Since the mid-'90s, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the SEIUhave excelled at getting Latino voters to the polls. This year, they are funding ads in the Spanish-language media assailing what they term Whitman's "two-faced" position on immigration — her hard-line position during the Republican primary and her more sunny rhetoric since. On this key issue, they assert, she cannot be trusted. They are carrying that message door to door in Latino neighborhoods throughout the state.
This summer's outburst of Republican nativism has provided the unions with ample talking points, as a union-sponsored poll of Los Angeles-area Latino voters made abundantly clear. Fully 83% of respondents opposed Arizona's suspicious-looking-Latino law, while 72% believed such a law could be passed in California. "Our message is that voting for Jerry is voting against the Arizona law and the prospect of its enactment here," said one of labor's leading California operatives.
"We know we're not going to be able to get back to the November '08 levels of turnout," the operative continued. "But just raising turnout to the level of the '08 primary would be a good goal." If younger voters and Latino and African American voters turned out at the level of that primary, Brown would probably be assured of victory.
Across most of the nation this fall, Democrats are resigned to having to face a reduced, disproportionately Republican electorate. In California, almost entirely because a more vibrant than usual labor movement has built deep ties to minority communities, this grim picture is one they can alter a bit — perhaps, just enough — to their advantage. Were labor as strong nationally as it is in California, Democrats might not be quite so panic-stricken about what the fall portends.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a columnist for the Washington Post. He is doing a guest columnist stint on our Tuesday Op-Ed page.

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