The Republican Main Street Partnership has emerged as an outspoken, deep-pocketed player in pro-business GOP plans to beat back tea-party challengers next year. But the group's new super PAC has an unexpected source for its seed money: labor unions.
The super PAC, called Defending Main Street, has not yet submitted a major donor disclosure to the Federal Election Commission. But documents filed by other groups show that two labor organizations, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Laborers' International Union of North America, directed a combined $400,000 to the Republican group in September and October.
Main Street says it has raised roughly $2 million total between its super PAC and an affiliated nonprofit group so far—and that means labor has supplied at least 20 percent of those funds.
For the unions, this is not a surprising move. While both labor groups direct most of their millions to Democrats, they have consistently given smaller amounts to friendly Republicans. But the scale of these six-figure donations—$250,000 from the Operating Engineers and $150,000 from LIUNA—makes this effort distinct. Plus, the money is coming as the Main Street group has been publicly declaring its intent to crush tea-party challengers in Republican primaries, going head to head with conservative bankrollers such as the anti-tax Club for Growth.
"Hopefully, we'll go into eight to 10 races and beat the snot out of them," Main Street President Steven LaTourette told National Journal in October.
That puts these labor groups on the front line of the GOP's intra-party ideological conflict, a battle where the affiliation to unions won't be considered advantageous, to say the least.
Take Idaho, for example, where LaTourette and Main Street have vowed to help Republican Rep. Mike Simpson win his primary against club-backed challenger Bryan Smith.
The Club for Growth has already criticized Simpson for earning union endorsements in past elections, and it has turned other groups' support back around on Simpson, too. When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a TV ad backing Simpson on Thursday, Club for Growth president Chris Chocola said in a statement, "I guess pro-bailout, pro-Obama stimulus spending, pro-debt birds of a feather flock together."
LaTourette has pledged that Main Street will seek to match the Club's spending in that contest.
"We don't care about where Main Street gets its funding from," said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. "But it's not surprising that Mike Simpson, who is anti-school choice and was backed by the Idaho teachers' union six elections in a row, would get backing from groups that are supported by labor unions."
Certainly, labor is not alone in funding Main Street. The group's money is "coming from business folks, from private donors," said spokesman Chris Barron. "It has a wide range of folks who are interested in supporting the governing wing of the Republican Party."
Barron rejected critiques of Main Street's funding and positioning. "If the money came from Mother Teresa, the Club for Growth would attack where it came from," Barron said.
Both the Operating Engineers and the Laborers' Union have given millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and millions more to the party's quasi-official House and Senate super PACs over the last few years. Only one other PAC gave more to Democratic candidates than the Operating Engineers' in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But both unions have also consistently invested in the campaigns of friendly Republicans, including LaTourette's (when he was in Congress). Earlier this year, LIUNA endorsed New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie for reelection, and its PAC gave $300,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which ran pro-Christie advertising in the Garden State.
The Operating Engineers' PAC has given 23 percent of its donations to federal candidates to Republicans this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it supported a super PAC called "Lunch Pail Republicans" last year. At the AFL-CIO's national convention in September, the Operating Engineers and another group offered a successful resolution urging "that the AFL-CIO take practical steps ... to cultivate and nurture relationships with members of all parties" and "encourage moderate candidates" in Republican-leaning congressional districts as part of a "pragmatic, bipartisan approach" to its political giving and advocacy.
"Especially with this crazy political atmosphere, this is a place where we need to be lending support to middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans both, and this is part of that effort," Jeffrey Soth, the Operating Engineers' political director, said.
Defending Main Street will file its next financial disclosure with the FEC in January.