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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

Political leanings: playersguide2014_135pxDemocratic/liberal

Spending target: Unknown

AFSCME is a labor union that represents more than 1.6 million public sector employees and retirees, including health care workers, corrections officers and sanitation workers. It has been politically active on the national level on such issues as expanding health care, protecting pension benefits, raising minimum wage standards, preventing the privatization of government jobs and extending unemployment benefits. It is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and promises to be a major player in the 2014 elections.

AFSCME spent more than $18 million on independent expenditures and other election communications in federal elections in 2012, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which collected its data from financial disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. AFSCME ranked 12th on the center’s list of outside spending by non-party groups. AFSCME is not required to publicly disclose the identity of its donors, or the size of their contributions.

The labor union was reportedly one of the first to take advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling early in 2010 allowing unions and corporations to directly finance ads that expressly call for the election or defeat of a candidate. Until that court decision, unions and corporations had to use political action committees for “express advocacy ads” and such PACs were limited to accepting no more than $5,000 per year from any one individual.

In 2012, the union spent heavily — $2.7 million — to prevent Mitt Romney from being elected president. This opposition began even before Romney won the Republican nomination, as AFSCME ran a potentially misleading ad in the Florida primary. We wrote about that ad in “Liberal Union Joins Attack on Romney in Florida.”

AFSCME also got involved in several congressional races, most notably spending more than $1.9 million to oppose Republican Dean Heller in Nevada and $1.8 million to attack Republican Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin.

Questions about AFSCME’s political strategy were raised in its 2012 internal elections to replace retiring, longtime President Gerald McEntee. Setbacks at the state level in places like Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker won a recall election after implementing an aggressive anti-public-sector-union agenda, led one of the candidates, Danny Donohue, to question whether the labor union’s heavy spending in federal races was an effective use of its resources. However, Donohue ultimately lost to McEntee protege Lee Saunders.

For the 2014 election cycle, AFSCME has thus far spent almost $965,000 in independent expenditures, all of which went to oppose Michigan Republican Terri Lynn Land in the Senate race for the seat of retiring Democrat, Carl Levin.