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Unions and Democrats renew criticism of Citizens United following Walker recall win

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Recall supporters rally despite news of Walker's victory (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Union groups and their supporters spent much of Wednesday castigating billionaire donors, Citizens United and corporate power in the wake of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's victory over the effort to recall him from office.

"Texas billionaires" and "multinational corporations" can "spend unlimited money to sway an election," American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president Richard Trumka told reporters on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. Trumka, whose union was one of many groups that actively supported the Walker recall, said this fundraising change holds "serious repercussions for our democracy."

"Citizens United has ushered in a new era of elections and it's not a pretty picture," Trumka said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling--Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission--which determined that independent political spending by corporations and unions is protected under the First Amendment. That ruling paved the way for the creation of super PACs and other groups with unlimited spending capacity, some of which are not required to report their donors.

Trumka was one of many figures on the left expressing anger about the power of outside money in Walker's 53 to 46 percent win over Democrat Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee and Walker's 2010 challenger. National Education Association president Dennis Van Roeke released a statement Tuesday night which included similar criticism:

Unfortunately, the biggest winner in tonight's recall election was the corporate cash that funded the campaign of Governor Scott Walker. These millionaire donors, empowered by the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, have made a mockery of democracy and nearly drowned out the voices of working families in Wisconsin.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Chairman Steve Israel proclaimed that the election served as a warning to Democrats that they must wage "aggressive air campaigns" to compete with outside group spending from Republican supporters.

"I've long said that Republicans didn't beat Democrats in 2010, Karl Rove and [the] Koch brothers did after the Citizens United decision," Israel said in a statement, referring to the billionaire Republican financiers David and Charles Koch. "Democratic allies and donors should not allow that to happen again this cycle. Democratic groups won't outspend Republican groups, but they can keep us in the fight."

But Trumka downplayed the suggestion that the Wisconsin recall would significantly change their fundraising strategy. He said his group's emphasis will not be shifted to "raising money and ads," following the recall result. Rather, their focus will remain on "educating and mobilizing workers."

Trumka said Walker and Republicans "probably have the best program money could buy" compared to the Democrats' all-volunteer ground game. Trumka noted that Walker and supporters spent an estimated $50 million on the race and he "lost control of the state Senate." "He didn't gain, he got to serve the rest of his term for $50 million dollars."

Trumka and others championed the recall of one state senator Tuesday, which changed the legislature's balance of power: 17 Democrats to 16 Republican. It remained unclear Wednesday afternoon if the Democrat in that race, John Lehman, would be declared the official winner amid a close vote count and a potential recount.

Heading into Tuesday's race, labor groups, progressives and other recall supporters readily conceded that they were being heavily outspent by Republicans and their supporters via outside spending. Barrett personally expressed dismay at being outspent 7 to 1, and his supporters agreed.

"We cannot compete with the Koch brothers and all of Walker's millionaire and billionaire megalomaniac friends who want to take control of the government," Chris Fleming, media director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told Yahoo News Tuesday.

Walker personally raised about $30 million, significantly more than the $4 million raised by Barrett. But outside spending, for which there are no concrete figures available, pushed Walker even further ahead in the fundraising race. One of his major supporters was Americans for Prosperity, the non-profit super PAC created by the Koch brothers.

But with super PACs remaining in place for the 2012 election, labor groups, unions and others were asked Wednesday exactly how they plan to compete against outside GOP spending for the remainder of this cycle.

Trumka suggested the recall as a unique situation that will not be replicated elsewhere. When asked if the president's decision not to campaign for Barrett could have changed the result, Trumka demurred. "There's probably some mixed feelings" regarding the level of the president's involvement, he said, but "if he'd been involved I don't know if there'd be any difference or not."

This is the second major electoral loss for big labor in recent years, piggybacking on labor's failed takedown of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010. Labor did win the repeal of an anti-public employee union measure in Ohio, Issue 2, in 2011, but union strength is still believed to be on the decline.

Union membership in 2011 fell to a record low for the second straight year, according to the Department of Labor.

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