With the election just two weeks away, the fight by Republicans for Minnesota’s House and other statewide offices is playing out in the trenches.
The last time the state Republican Party had a robust field operation was in 2008, during the bitter and ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign of Sen. Norm Coleman. Financially burdened by $2 million in debt left after the departure of former party chair Tony Sutton, Republicans in 2012 were clobbered by Democrats’ and President Obama’s unparalleled field operation in that election cycle.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey says this year will be different.
The party has opened 18 field offices across the state with nearly two dozen paid staffers. Republicans have set a goal of contacting more than 1 million voters and getting them to the polls on Nov. 4.
“It’s a big machine,” Downey said. “It’s clearly something that’s far larger and more comprehensive than we’ve done before in Minnesota.”
Republicans lost much of their power in 2012, when DFLers swept control of the House and Senate and took every constitutional seat from governor to auditor. The GOP is betting that a renewed focus on their ground game will keep them competitive and give them a shot at reclaiming one legislative body majority and perhaps a seat at the table in statewide offices.
Even so, their effort is being dwarfed by a mammoth DFL network of 31 field offices with 125 staffers.
Nationally, it has become increasingly clear that a strong ground game is critical in turning support into votes. The Obama get-out-the-vote effort in 2012 was no match for Republicans. That operation used expansive data to target particular voters and ensure they made it to polls. The Republican National Committee at a meeting last summer in Chicago vowed to create a “permanent ground game” to be able to go toe-to-toe with Democrats in future election cycles.
McFadden steps in
In Minnesota, Republicans this year received a huge assist from Senate candidate Mike McFadden’s campaign to shore up its get-out-the-vote effort. Earlier this year McFadden had pledged to help build the party’s field operation and he has followed through.
McFadden’s campaign has raised more than $500,000 for the MNGOP/Victory program and sent two staffers to the party, including its data director, said Tom Erickson, deputy campaign manager for the Republican senate candidate.
State party officials are banking on the data and organizational expertise that McFadden’s team developed last summer during the Republican endorsement convention in Rochester.
Facing more experienced rivals for his party’s endorsement earlier this year, McFadden and his campaign relied on a data-driven focus to home in on undecided delegates at the state convention in May. The campaign and an army of 70 volunteers made 50,000 phone calls to just under 7,000 party activists. The sophisticated operation paid off for the rookie candidate, who eked out a win over political veterans to secure the party’s endorsement. It’s a strategy Downey hopes to replicate in the statewide field operation.
“They’ve been a fantastic support, helping fundraise, providing a strategic direction and force power to the effort,” Downey said.
At a Republican Victory Office in the southern Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville, a couple of dozen volunteers were steadfastly making phone calls to potential voters on a recent week night.
The volunteers used iPhones connected to tablet computers running CallFire, a software that the McFadden team had vetted during the endorsement and primary election.
Tom Pugliese, a 66-year-old Lakeville resident, is a familiar face at this victory office, nestled in a small storefront off Holyoke Avenue.
“We need a definite change in the direction the country is going at this time,” said Pugliese, who retired from the food and beverage marketing industry. “I’m making phone calls and doing whatever is necessary to help our candidates.”
Pugliese, who began volunteering before the August primary, said he mainly makes phone calls and will distribute campaign literature door-to-door on behalf of the party. He shares his party’s mission of ousting Democrats from office, including Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, because he said he disagrees with Democrats about their foreign policy and their handling of the economy.
He criticizes Democrats in particular for not doing enough to improve the rate of part-time workers who are seeking full-time work.
“The Democratic Party is just not cutting the mustard … there’s incompetence at every level of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Hannah Holm, a 23-year-old resident of Lakeville, is one of the 23 paid field staffers working for the party statewide. Holm directs the efforts at the Lakeville Victory Office that opened in July. The walls are adorned with campaign posters for the various Republican candidates running in House races, as well as the top-ticket slots for governor and U.S. senator.
Here, the office relies on a network of high school interns and local residents who volunteer, making about 50,000 calls a week, Holm said. A whiteboard posted in the office had an Election Day countdown posted — 19 days left.
“We are really encouraged when we talk to Republican voters in the area and they thank us for making these calls or they tell us to keep up the good work or they tell us to keep fighting for those candidates,” Holm said. “It’s encouraging.”