Union-backed super PAC reaches out to Rust Belt voters

Group wants upgrades on nation’s infrastructure

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Hard Hats for America rallies supporters at the presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 9, 2016.

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A new union-backed super PAC wants to make America’s infrastructure great again and believes Democrat Hillary Clinton is the candidate to do it.

Hard Hats for America, which registered with the Federal Election Commission in August, wants to “reverse the years of neglect that have harmed our roads, bridges and other infrastructure,” according to its website.

The super PAC says it plans to “organize and speak out throughout this election to advocate the election of Hillary Clinton and other supporters of long-overdue infrastructure improvements throughout the United States.”

As comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” once quipped, “when our infrastructure is not being destroyed by robots and/or saved by Bruce Willis, we tend to find it a bit boring.”

Hard Hats for America hopes to turn infrastructure into an election issue.

Who’s behind it?

Hard Hats for America’s official registration paperwork lists two men as connected to the group.

The first is labor official Brent Booker, the secretary-treasurer of North America's Building Trades Unions. The second is a veteran Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.

For his part, Varoga also leads the pro-Democratic group Patriot Majority USA, which, during in the 2014 battle for control of the U.S. Senate, was a major “dark money” player — so-called because it does not disclose its donors.

(Varoga once told Politico that if Democrats “whine and complain” about the court cases that led to the proliferation of dark money in politics, then they’d “lose races that otherwise we should win” because they’d “be completely disadvantaged.”)

This year, Varoga and Patriot Majority USA have also been involved with a voter registration project in Indiana that was recently raided by state police amid fraud concerns. Varoga has denied any wrongdoing and accused the police and Indiana’s Republican secretary of state of “harassing” a nonpartisan voter registration drive.

As a super PAC, Hard Hats for America does disclose its donors, and its funders, so far, are strictly labor unions.

Money in

All super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and labor unions — so long as these political action committees don’t coordinate their spending with candidates.

Hard Hats for America raised $580,000 through the end of September, according to a recently filed campaign finance report.

Four labor unions provided all of that money.

The International Union of Operating Engineers and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry each contributed $250,000.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers donated $75,000. And North America's Building Trades Unions gave $5,000.

Money out

To date, Hard Hats for America has spent about $200,000 on efforts to promote Clinton’s candidacy, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance filings.

The super PAC has yet to air any TV or radio ads, though it has paid for digital advertising and also has an active online presence, including a Facebook page branded “Hard Hats for Hillary” — a slogan it has emblazoned on stickers, signs and t-shirts as well.

One of the super PAC’s recently produced digital advertisements features excerpts of Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention touting her “bold agenda to improve the lives of people across our country,” including a major infrastructure program within the first 100 days of her administration.

“The next president could literally mean the difference between a safe America and an unsafe one,” the narrator warns.

Super PAC spokeswoman Christy Setzer told the Center for Public Integrity that Hard Hats for America is also holding a number of rallies for building trade union members in targeted battleground states, as well as at the presidential and vice presidential debates.

“Hard Hats for America is targeting voters in the Rust Belt who are particularly affected by the economy and would benefit from Hillary Clinton's infrastructure plans,” she added. “Hard Hats for America is uniquely suited to sell her plan, sell her candidacy and help get America back to work.”

Why it matters

Hard Hats for America is targeting working-class voters in several key battleground states, including Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Most of those states typically vote Democratic in presidential elections, but Trump is hoping his protectionist views on trade will win over workers there.

According to a September poll commissioned by Hard Hats for America, a bipartisan majority of voters support Increased federal spending for infrastructure.

Yet people were divided on whether Clinton or Republican Donald Trump had a better plan to tackle the issue: 44 percent said Clinton had a better plan, while 43 percent preferred Trump — a difference within the poll’s margin of error.

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