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Nov 7, 2014 5:09 PM

GOP celebrates success of election ground game

The Associated Press

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) In the suburbs south of Denver, a tight-knit group of Republicans hatched plans this spring to counter the "Bannock Street Project."

Named for the successful push at the polls that saved Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010, the "Bannock Street Project" is what Democrats called this year's voter turnout operation for Senate candidates. It's a name that also came to symbolize how Democrats had bested the GOP in getting out the vote in recent elections.

This year, the GOP vowed not to be left behind. Field workers began in May to knock on the doors of Republican-leaning swing voters, identified by mining demographic data, to talk about the party's Senate candidate, Rep. Cory Gardner. They followed up with handwritten notes. They kept at it for months.

On Election Day, it paid off. Republicans celebrated not just Gardner's win, but victories in more than enough races to win control of the Senate.

"We built a battle plan to match them house to house," said Chris Hansen, Gardner's campaign manager.

There were many reasons for the widespread Republican victories in the midterm elections, from the unpopularity of President Barack Obama to the success of national GOP leaders in steering electable candidates through the party's primaries.

But both parties agree that Republicans, considered pioneers in matching Internet-age data to old-fashioned door-knocking after President George W. Bush's re-election campaign, had fallen woefully behind Democrats in the effort to turn out voters after Obama's 2008 election.

Skunked by Obama's campaign in 2012, the Republican National Committee decided it would focus on building the team and systems it needed to identify potential GOP voters and then getting them to the polls.

The RNC bragged a few days after the election that effort reached 35 million voters, including more than 2.4 million they identified as low propensity, or unlikely to cast a ballot without a push.

"We fundamentally changed our strategy by expanding the electorate to turn out low-propensity Republican voters and to turn them out early," said RNC spokesman Michael Short.

Democrats' turnout machine worked, too, but it wasn't enough. "A dynamite turnout operation is only worth 1, 2, 3 points at the most," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, "and it's not enough to overcome a national wave."

In Colorado, where registration is evenly divided between the two major parties and independents, ultimate success for the GOP started with the recruitment of Gardner to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. Then came the field push.

Hansen persuaded RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to allow Clinton Soffer, a 25-year-old one-time canvasser who was supposed to run the GOP's election operations in California, to move to the Gardner campaign offices, hidden behind a door marked "Building Maintenance Company," across the hall from the office of the Colorado Republican Party.

They built a team of paid field staffers, often college students they armed with iPads loaded with voter information, who began talking to swing voters and low-propensity Republicans. Then, slowly, they introduced Gardner's name into the conversation.

Hansen and Soffer said when Udall began to hammer Gardner for his past support of a measure that could ban forms of contraception, they could measure the attack's damage by tracking those door-to-door conversations. After Gardner proposed selling birth control over the counter, they could gauge how it played via that field staff, weeks before it became the centerpiece of Gardner's TV ads.

"When Cory came up supporting over-the-counter, we'd come to the door and they'd say, 'He wants to ban birth control,' and we'd say, 'Actually, he wants to expand over-the-counter access,'" Soffer said.

Behind the scenes, Republicans were buzzing, believing they were reaching voters at double or triple the rate of Democrats. "We were doing in August what they were doing it in October," said Ward Baker, the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The Republican model varied from state to state. In Colorado, the Gardner campaign emphasized a paid canvassing staff, while in Georgia the GOP recruited volunteers to door-knock for David Perdue, who avoided an expected runoff to outright win his race for senate on Election Day.

Colorado was a ripe target because, for the first time, it allowed ballots to be cast by mail or in person. Gardner's campaign pushed its voters to send in early ballots, building a formidable defense against a surge of Democratic voters who turned out on Election Day.

As Tuesday neared and the Udall campaign unleashed 7,500 volunteers to knock on doors, the Gardner campaign said it was relying on more than 500 paid canvassers who had already knocked on more than 1.25 million doors in Colorado.

Among them was Mitch Woomer, a 23-year-old economics student who had been with the campaign since May. He's not registered with any party and said he was lured into the gig by its $14 an hour pay, the chance to experience something new and civic obligation.

"You hear about how it's an off-year election and there's all this cynicism with Congress but it's by the people and for the people," he said.

Few people were home on the Monday before the election, and Woomer even came up short at the house of a cousin on his list of people expected to vote for Gardner. But he found Lisa Stoiber at home.

Stoiber told him she was planning to vote on Election Day. Woomer checked her off his electronic list, not even needing to wait for her to add: "I'm voting all Republican."


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