Herman Cain

Herman Cain addresses small business owners in Philadelphia on Friday, October 19. Photo by George Zornick.

“The problem,” former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain told a ballroom of about thirty people in Philadelphia on Friday afternoon, “is we have a president who does not believe in a free marketplace. This is why his whole campaign is about class warfare. Playing the race card. Divisiveness. And as some of us know, deception.”

These are boilerplate attacks from Cain, but this was not a typical Tea Party rally. This was yet another stop on Cain’s “Job Creators Truth Tour 2012,” the fifth this week and one of thirty that will happen before the election. The audience was “job creators” from the Philadelphia area—small-business owners who were there to learn how to influence their employees vote in November.

Mitt Romney landed in hot water this week when In These Times reported his remarks on a conference call with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, in which he told business owners that “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections.” But Cain’s tour represents a much deeper and well-organized effort by the GOP to use what borders on workplace intimidation to influence this fall’s vote—and one that has largely gone on below the radar.

Before each event, which are happening exclusively in swing states, invites go out to business owners through local Tea Party groups. The lunches are always free, and during nice meals business owners are plied with information about how President Obama’s re-election will supposedly damage their bottom lines. They are also given multiple pamphlets containing similar information, and instructed to pass them out to employees. Cain said he has already made contact with 1,600 small business owners since beginning the tour.

Unlike Romney, who used a bit of tact on that conference call (saying employees should vote “whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama,”) the materials and speeches leave little doubt about who employees are supposed to vote for. There are occasional disclaimers that this is a nonpartisan exercise, but they border on nonsensical. “This is not a party stance. The mission is to defeat Barack Obama,” Cain said Friday in Philadelphia.

As attendees dined on salmon, mussels, coffee and desert at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, Cain let them know that the election can be won more easily than many people think. “There are a lot of disgruntled Democrats out there. And most of them work for you!” he said. “This is why we’ve made these materials available to you, and folks, you know—free.”

Cain noted recent controversies over the practice of bosses leaning on their employees about whom to vote for, specifically the recent case involving hotel owner Steve Wynn, but told the attendees not to worry about it. We’re not “going to scare employees,” he said. “Steve Wynn, and others, and you, are trying to inform employees. That’s what this is about.”

But the materials handed out, which are supposed to be given to employees, do border on threatening—noting in bold letters that to “protect your job” employees must vote:

But for whom? The pamphlets make that pretty clear. While not explicitly endorsing Romney, they contain helpful information like this: on taxes, Romney supports a “flatter, simpler, fairer tax code for all Americans that will help businesses, and families to prosper.” Obama, meanwhile, “would increase many types of taxes, including those on businesses that file taxes as individuals.” The president also put in place a healthcare plan where small businesses “would be forced to drop coverage,” while Romney favors an approach that “brings down costs.”

In case the materials aren’t clear enough, the speeches at the lunches are blunt. Tea Party leaders often speak, like Colin Hanna on Friday afternoon—he told the crowd that Obama “simply does not understand growth.” Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore was also there, and gave a mini-lecture about how Obama’s economic policies are supposedly going to wreck the economy in a second term. He also co-authored a briefing book called “Prosperity 101” distributed at the luncheon that employers are also instructed to hand out to employees.

Many veterans of Cain’s campaign attend as well. The infamous Mark Block milled about the back of the room, and Linda Hansen, his campaign manager, addressed the crowd and urged them to proselytize workers. “The left has been the only ones organizing in the workplace,” she said. “While those who sign the paychecks are scared to speak.”

The tour is funded by the Job Creator Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) that doesn’t disclose donors. It was created after the GOP primary by Cain and Bernie Marcus, a billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and conservative activist. Hansen said all the materials had been cleared with Federal Election Commission and National Labor Relations Board Lawyers, and do not break the law. That may be true—the Citizens United decision made it legal for employers to subject employees to partisan, one-sided political speeches or information—though they are still barred from making implicit or explicit threats about voting for the “wrong” candidate, which some of these materials seem to flirt with doing.

The strategy so far seems to be working. Cain said he has received enthusiastic responses from the 1,600 business owners he talked to, and the ones I spoke with in Philadelphia backed that up. David Patten, who owns a specialty chemicals corporation in the area that employs about twenty people, said he planned to distribute the materials to his workers. He cited “uncertainty” over tax policy as the reason he is getting active. “How am I supposed to plan for next year if I don’t know what’s going to happen?” he said. “It’s very difficult to regularly hire people. It’s very difficult.”

For more on employers pressuring voters to vote Republican, check out Lee Fang's report, Is Your Boss Going to 'Mine' Your Vote?