CUNA’s political team harnessed the power of nice and the credit union member vote in two key races, spending nearly half a million PAC dollars on positive partisan communications that the trade association’s leaders say is the wave of the future.
Supporting incumbents Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mt.) and Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), CUNA said it worked with each candidate’s respective credit union league to create positive messages that encouraged support of the two based on their support of credit union issues.
Vice President of Political Affairs Trey Hawkins said CUNA research showed as many as 65% of members say they are more likely to vote for a candidate if their credit union advises them to.
“If you’re running a campaign, a $5,000 check is just a tiny piece of what you’re trying to do,” Hawkins said. “But, if you’re in the trenches, and you see someone with a positive image coming in communications to voters, saying ‘vote for this guy because he’s a friend to credit unions,’ when so much advertising is negative, I think it furthers our overall advocacy goals.”
Partisan communications campaigning is permitted for corporations and associations to discuss with their employees, shareholders or members support for federal candidates. Communications can take the form of emails, direct mail, phone bank calling and candidate appearances.
However, only those included in a corporation or group’s restricted class can receive partisan communications, according to industry trade groups.
In 1999, the Federal Election Commission clarified that members were a credit union’s restricted class because they are considered shareholders, said Richard Gose, CUNA senior vice president of political affairs.
A review of CUNA’s partisan communication direct mail pieces from the past few years revealed it’s clear to members the message is coming from their credit union. Those that participate are recruited by their leagues and provide member information for the project. Gose stressed that neither the leagues nor CUNA touch the member information per law. Instead, the member data, which includes only those that are required to match the members to voting registration lists, is sent to an independent third party vendor subject to a strict confidentiality agreement. The data is destroyed or returned to the credit union after Election Day. Members’ financial information is not included, according to CUNA.
Convincing credit union management and volunteers to sponsor campaign ads can be a hard sell.
“We’ve heard ‘members come to us for financial services, they don’t want to hear political messaging from their credit union,’” Hawkins said.
However, he added that not one credit union that has participated has said they wouldn’t help again due to negative member feedback.
Gose said CUNA’s partisan communications are sent only to members who have registered as members of the party the ad supports. Only Democrats receive ads supporting Democratic candidates, and vice versa for Republican registered members. He estimates credit unions may get one negative call for every 10,000 mailed pieces or phone calls.
Dan Schline, senior vice president of association services for the North Carolina Credit Union League, said not one credit union member receiving partisan communications in support of Kissell during the 2010 election cycle complained about it. Some credit unions were passed over this cycle due to redistricting, but the same number of credit unions – seven – participated in partisan communications for Kissell’s 8th congressional district.
Credit union member penetration in a voting district is a big consideration when selecting races that receive partisan communications, Gose said. Credit unions in the district willing to participate and tight races are other considerations.
Senate races, which cover an entire state, are often better suited to independent expenditures that allow for broad advertising to the general public, Gose said. However, House districts are much smaller, and could mirror a credit union’s geographical field of membership.
“One of the strengths of credit unions is broad membership. We will never have the financial resources of other industries, so we try to engage members in a creative way,” Hawkins said.
But, Gose countered, credit unions are a force to reckon with. The powerful American Association of Retired Persons has 54 million members, but there are 94 million credit union members, he said.
Twenty-five credit unions participated in CUNA’s partisan communications this election cycle.
Schline said he would characterize the credit unions participating in Kissell’s support as politically active.
“They go to GAC, meet with members of congress in Washington, have been in meetings with Congressman Kissell and recognize and appreciate the level of support he’s given our issues,” Schline said. “Kissell attended our annual meeting, so they’ve been exposed to how supportive he is, and recognize how important it is for the credit union movement to have someone who will step out on limb and support you.”
Kissell had a tight race in 2010, and post-redistricting, faced an even tougher battle as a Democrat attempting to win a conservative district. Schline said the league would welcome working with Kissell’s challenger, Republican Richard Hudson, as the race isn’t so much about fighting Kissell’s opponent as it is supporting an industry friend. However, Kissell is squarely in the credit union corner, currently signed on as a co-sponsor of member business lending, supplemental capital and exam reform legislation in the House.
To support Kissell, the North Carolina league assisted CUNA in coordinating the mailing of six advertisements to credit union members registered as Democrats or Independents over the past two weeks. Like other CUNA partisan communications, the ads shared a positive message about Kissell, rather than negative messaging about his opponent, according to the trade group.