The Conservative Ground War in the States

by | October 29, 2014

By Maeve Reston

For much of her 17 years as a financial planner, Molly Vogt never imagined she'd become a political activist. But she was outraged by the financial crisis, launching an economy-focused women's group called "My Purse Politics" and ultimately taking a full-time job with Americans for Prosperity. She calls it a role she will fill "until I can get government out of my way."

As a field director in Colorado, Vogt is one of more than 500 paid foot soldiers across the country for the conservative nonprofit group, funded in part by the Koch brothers, that advocates for limited government. For much of this year, she and nearly three dozen other staffers in the state have helped build Americans for Prosperity's data-driven effort: amassing teams of volunteers who go door to door collecting information on voters and the national and local issues that matter to them _ such as the president's health care law and school choice.

Now, Vogt's days are centered on turning that data into votes for Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in one of November's tightest and most important races.

In a year when Democrats have focused on issues such as abortion and birth control, Vogt feels a personal responsibility to get women fired up about the government's role in health care, and the financial and housing markets. "This year was the first time I knocked on a door, because I just got so fed up with what was going on," she said.

The art of political persuasion can be complex. Television ads _ whether uplifting or testily negative _ have long been the key vehicle for defining candidates to voters. But the second necessity _ getting them to cast their votes _ has increasingly rested on meticulously organized, technologically powered, repetitive contact by people like Vogt who identify prospective voters and help close the deal.

In Colorado and other states, the two national parties and their allies are sweeping through the suburbs with the dedication of advancing armies.

Americans for Prosperity alone has knocked on 140,000 doors since June.

Such conservative groups are both ascendant and playing catchup to Democratic field operations in key states. Their efforts this year are meant to deliver results in November and create the template for the presidential race in 2016. Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips says emphatically that the group is in the field to stay in competitive states including Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida _ the mightiest of swing states, where the group has 50 full- and part-time staffers.

He notes that for years, the left had the advantage of "a powerful force on the ground that was outside the Democratic Party": government employee unions, environmental groups and community groups.

"They had an army," Phillips said. But on the right, "there really was not a permanent infrastructure with professional staff, the ability to mobilize activists on a large scale, with a consistent stream of funding. So at Americans for Prosperity, we've spent a decade now working to build just that."

But they are facing fierce competition, not only from outside Democratic groups. In Colorado, Democrats say their field team is about three times the size it was in 2010 when it helped notch a victory for the state's other Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, with an average margin of one vote per precinct.

Bennet's effort that election was so successful in boosting turnout among sporadic Democratic voters that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee invested $60 million to replicate it across the country this year as the so-called Bannock Street Project, which takes its name from the Denver street where Bennet's campaign office was located.

With Republicans outmatched in 2012 by the Democrats' wealth of data and precise turnout operation, the national party this cycle has invested $105 million in improving its ability to track voters' interests and willingness to go to the polls _ or in Colorado's case, the mailbox, since this year every voter will be able to cast a ballot by mail for the first time.

The GOP efforts in states such as Colorado are bolstered by outside groups, but Americans for Prosperity operates independently and has built its own database of voters. "You want to be able to hold the party that is your erstwhile ally accountable," Phillips said.

Because it was set up as a "social welfare" nonprofit organization, Americans for Prosperity does not have to disclose its donors, and did not have to detail its spending to the Federal Election Commission until 60 days before the election. But the group financed by the Koch brothers, the billionaire backers of conservative political causes, demonstrated its deep pockets in 2012, when it spent $122 million attempting to defeat President Obama and other Democrats, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

In that race, Americans for Prosperity plowed most of its money into advertising. It is still one of the biggest spenders on advertising this year _ approaching more than $50 million.

But it has made a far greater investment this year in canvassing and related endeavors than in 2012. Its most recent mailing in Colorado was a report card detailing each voter's history compared with four neighbors with a perfect voting history _ a gentle, data-driven nudge to return their ballots.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times