Can Labor Win It for Harry Reid?

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Note: This post was updated Wednesday morning.

The pugnacious, mustached AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka traveled to Reno Tuesday night to gin up some enthusiasm for the embattled Harry Reid, hoping that labor's ground troops can stave off Sharron Angle's challenge and keep the Senate majority leader in his seat.

For labor, the stakes in this race are high.

Nevada is "Ground Zero in the battle to put working men and women before the oil companies and the corporate lobbyists and Wall Street," Trumka told union members when he addressed them at the Washoe County Senior Center, according to prepared remarks, with Reid in attendance before Trumka headed to Las Vegas Wednesday morning to kick off union phone banks and canvasses.

Reid is Trumka's kind of Democrat, and their similarities and differences couldn't be more pronounced.

Reid's father was a union hardrock miner in Searchlight, where the future senator would follow him into the mines as a child; Trumka grew up in Pennsylvania's coal country, following his own father to work as a coal miner and eventually chairing a United Mine Workers local.

And both are tough: Reid boxed in his youth. The mob tried to kill him with a car bomb. Trumka, unlike the softspoken senator, has become known as an outspoken political leader, willing to attack his enemies loudly and fearlessly--like he did during a recent trip to Alaska, where he delivered a screed of a speech about Sarah Palin.

In his Senate career, Reid has prized the issues of traditional labor Democrats, pushing for the maintenance or expansion of basic social programs like Social Security and Medicare before ushering health care reform through the upper chamber last year.

Angle, coincidentally, is just the kind of small-government candidate labor is fighting hardest this election cycle. Paring down Social Security and Medicare? Both are policies Angle supports, and both are policies unions are fighting hard against.

"Sharron Angle doesn't know the first thing about how to get America back on track," Trumka planned to say Tuesday night. "She called jobless workers 'spoiled.' She apologized to BP after the oil spill! She dreams of dismantling Social Security. She doesn't understand unemployment, the housing crisis, or why America needs a minimum wage."

(Angle didn't actually apologize to BP--though she did say the government shouldn't be forcing BP to pay into an escrow fund--but no matter. The union members in attendance probably caught Trumka's drift.)

As a consequence of all this, labor sees Nevada as a critical race to keep up its agenda in the Senate.

"If we're going to keep our champion," Trumka said, "We've got to fight for him."

And labor's votes could make the difference.

In this extremely close race, with polls conflicted on who leads and, regardless, showing those slim leads within the margin of error, there are enough union members in Nevada to change the outcome next Wednesday, depending on whether they turn out--and whether they actually vote for the candidate their labor leaders support.

The AFL-CIO estimates over 150,000 union members, retirees, family members, and members of the affiliated non-union organization Working America in Nevada--all of which are contacted by the AFL's political program--including members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which are working with the AFL-CIO to urge members to vote for Reid.

Union members made up 14 percent of the vote in Nevada in 2006, when Sen. John Ensign won his re-election bid, according to CNN exit polls. Another 10 percent of voters lived in the same household as a union member, meaning 24 percent could have seen mailers from unions urging them to vote Democratic.

If labor is to sway the vote in Reid's favor, it will have to convince its own people to support him, which means Trumka's visit--on top of the pro-Reid leaflets unions are delivering to worksites--will be important. Especially in an election climate that threatens to suppress Democratic turnout and give the GOP an advantage with working-class voters.

Union voters should be reliably Democratic. In 2006, Ensign's Democratic challenger, Jack Carter, enjoyed a 17 percent advantage among Nevada union members but only a two percent advantage among non-union members of union households--a demographic labor counts on in using its political program to deliver votes and volunteers. Ensign, meanwhile, enjoyed a 24 percentage-point advantage among non-union members who don't live with a union member.

This year, Reid has a 28 percentage-point advantage among union members and members of union households, according to internal AFL-CIO polling.

Labor's ground operation in Nevada is in full gear, according to union spokespeople, with phone banks, canvasses, and shuttles to take Las Vegas hotel and casino workers to the polls to vote early.

As is the case in many Democratic campaigns, unions are looking to supply Reid with a ground game, seeking to turn out their members as volunteers to get out the vote for him in the home stretch of this election.

Reid has also been aided by SEIU in the way of independent spending. The union is dedicating $725,000 to help Reid win re-election: $500,000 donated to the Patriot Majority Fund for paid media and field work, and $225,000 to air this ad alleging that Sharron Angle will make life worse for women.

In this election climate, a bad economy threatens to suppress Democratic turnout and supply the necessary anti-incumbent anger to fuel Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle--particularly among hard-hit working-class voters across the country. And Nevada is a perfect example: with the highest state unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation--14.4 percent jobless, one in 29 homes foreclosed upon in the third quarter of this year--the powerful Reid is facing an angry electorate that, in some polls, favors Angle, who has come to embody the Tea Party movement and the anti-incumbent sentiment that has propelled it.

If Reid is to win this election, he'll need all the help he can get in the way of mobilizing working-class Democratic supporters and getting traditional Democratic votes on Election Day.

Which, coincidentally, is what organized labor does.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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