Of the 435 representatives and 36 senators who were victorious on election night 2014, 392 had one thing in common: They had support from credit unions.
A success rate of more than 90% in 2014 led CUNA President/CEO Jim Nussle to declare a “credit union-friendly majority” had been elected to the 114th Congress.
Now, as the country gears up to elect members of the 115th Congress—who will take office in January—credit unions again are involved in this year’s elections.
“Research clearly shows that when credit union members receive information about how a candidate has worked to support credit unions, they have a positive response,” says Richard Gose, CUNA’s chief political officer. “Every voter is voting because of some issue. People care about their credit unions, and they understand that it’s a positive thing to have elected officials who keep credit unions in mind.”
According to CUNA research, 42% of all registered voters are credit union members, and 23% of registered voters use a credit union as their primary financial institution.
These are numbers that can help credit unions fully realize their impact. Mid Oregon Credit Union in Bend has a long history of sharing political information with members, says Bill Anderson, president/ CEO of the $192 million asset credit union. And while politics aren’t something usually associated with financial institutions, Anderson says as long as the message relates to credit unions, Mid Oregon’s members are listening.
“When we ask members to contact their elected officials, it’s always directly credit union-related,” Anderson says. “The process of getting members involved politically is easy. We simply inform and ask.”
Anderson says that by sticking to credit union issues and focusing on how an elected official has stood with or against credit unions, Mid Oregon can dodge potential partisan divisions that might otherwise exist.
“Awareness is directly dependent on our communication frequency about an issue,” Anderson says. “When there has been a [response to a] specific threat such as Operation Grassroots back in the 1990s or H.R. 1151, [which amended the Federal Credit Union Act to allow multiple common bonds], members certainly were aware of the need to have credit union supporters in Congress.”
Supporting CU-friendly candidates
CUNA’s political action committee, the Credit Union Legislative Action Council (CULAC), works with state leagues to support candidates around the country. CUNA and league staff begin interviewing and meeting with candidates, often before the primary elections, to see which candidates support credit unions.
“We’re able to get good information early about the candidate and the district using professional pollsters and tools such as Project ZIP Code,” says Trey Hawkins, CUNA’s vice president of political affairs. “All this gives us information about a race, and informs our strategy going forward.”
CUNA’s Project ZIP Code counts credit union members and matches them by congressional district, state legislative district, and county.
With incumbents, legislators’ credit union stance generally is known by legislation they’ve introduced or co-sponsored. With new candidates, CUNA and the league follow their processes to determine which candidates to support.
Per CULAC’s bylaws, no action is taken to support a candidate unless CUNA and the state leagues agree. Not every race has a credit union candidate in it. In 2014, credit unions supported 396 candidates in the House (with 375 winning) and 29 in the Senate (with 25 winning).
CULAC finished the 2013-2014 election cycle with a record $4.43 million in receipts, 13% ahead of 20112012’s total of $3.9 million.
Going to bat for ‘Credit Union Jones’
As recently as this primary season, credit unions in North Carolina found their candidate under banker attacks. Bankers labeled Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., as “Credit Union Jones” in an attempt to paint him as being too cozy with the member-owned, not-for-profit cooperative financial system.
Jones, first elected in 1992, has long been a friend to credit unions. He has co-sponsored legislation that would raise the member business lending cap, and has close relationships with many credit union leaders in his district.
“We were surprised at the level of animosity the banks expressed towards Rep. Jones since it’s not as if he suddenly became a credit union friend overnight,” says Maurice Smith, president/CEO of $1.5 billion asset Local Government Federal Credit Union, Raleigh, N.C., and CUNA Board secretary. “He has a long record of being open-minded on all issues, and welcomes all of his constituents to seek his representation and support on a variety of issues. After fully considering the credit union points of view, Rep. Jones supports credit unions because we presented a credible case for our values.”
While the bankers spent more than $68,000 in independent expenditures for Jones’ primary election opponent, Taylor Griffin, and raised tens of thousands of dollars more in personal contributions, CUNA and the Carolinas Credit Union League worked on a partisan communication campaign.
Partisan communication campaigns are where credit unions, working with CUNA and their league, target direct mail to credit union members encouraging support for a particular candidate.
The results? Jones took 65% of the vote in June’s primary election, while Griffin finished in third place.
“Let’s face it: Big banks do not enjoy a favorable opinion among the public,” Smith says. “Of course, banks are not altogether bad. They play an important role in the financial ecosystem, but it seems that average folks harbor animosity toward the perceived greed of banks. This negative perception plays well for the support of credit unions.
“On the other hand,” he continues, “when the public understands credit union values, they approve of the message. I believe it’s natural for a pro-credit union candidate to reap the favorable impressions of a pro-credit union audience.”