RALEIGH -- Over the last few election cycles, talk of big money helping shape North Carolina’s election landscape has usually focused on conservative-leaning, outside groups funded by well-heeled business magnates.

Less attention has been paid to the involvement of unions and labor groups.

Union money has been significant, though.

In 2004, six unions spent about $2.2 million on contributions and independent expenditures for campaigns for state elected offices. In 2008, the figure rose to $4.7 million.

Unions haven’t been very successful getting their way in North Carolina, especially when it comes to their primary goal of doing away with a state ban on collective bargaining by government workers.

That lack of success may mean less union spending on elections in 2012.

But labor money in elections may receive more attention this year than in those past years.

The reason? A big chunk of it could wind up going toward a single lower-ballot race.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina has made no bones about its desire to see a longtime supporter, Democrat Linda Coleman, elected to the job of lieutenant governor.

During her tenure in the state House, Ms. Coleman acted as a key supporter and sponsor of SEANC-backed legislation. More recently, she served as state personnel director.

In the primary, SEANC and its national parent union, the Service Employees International Union, put nearly $400,000 toward Ms. Coleman’s election.

The Associated Press’ Gary Robertson recently pointed out that the decision by SEANC to avoid an endorsement in the governor’s race will likely mean that much more money for Ms. Coleman’s campaign in coming weeks.

SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope declined to tell the Associated Press how much money the group would put toward an independent effort to boost Coleman this fall. Cope did characterize the expenditure as “significant.”

Lieutenant governor may sound like an important job, and as the person who would take over in the event of the governor’s death or incapacity, it is.

But it is not easy to raise money when running for the post.

In 2008, Robert Pittenger, the Republican who eventually lost to current-Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, lent his campaign nearly half of the $4.2 million that he spent.

Ms. Coleman’s Republican opponent, Dan Forest, apparently understands how much the scales could be tipped by some big money weighing in against him.

In an interview with the AP, Forest said, “The question in my mind is what does the employee association stand to benefit from in this investment?”

It’s a good question.

In fact, it’s one that every one should ask every time any group or individual on either side of the political spectrum spends gobs of money to elect this or that candidate.

What does a union have to gain by pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into an election campaign? What about a retail magnate? How about a pharmaceutical development firm CEO? What about a casino owner?

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