The Republican National Committee has spent significant time and resources on a handful of local special elections this year, hoping to fine-tune its voter turnout operation for the upcoming 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential contest.
Of the six special elections held on the state level since President Bush won a second term in November, Republicans have won four, according to a memo composed by RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call.
“Local races and, in particular, special elections, give the RNC the opportunity to test new and improved targeting and tactics that we have been working on to improve since the 2004 election,” Mehlman wrote.
The memo highlights state Senate races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York and Tennessee as well as a city council race in Lincoln, Neb., as evidence of the RNC’s success in honing its get-out-the-vote efforts.
Republicans have credited their recent gains in the House and Senate, as well as Bush’s successful re-election bid, to the “72-Hour Program” — the party’s turnout plan, which was created during the 2002 cycle. Many Democrats have concurred in that assessment.
RNC Communications Director Brian Jones said that the aim of this year’s special-election efforts is to “take what worked in 2004 and modify it and use some of these races where we can test new, best practices with an eye on 2006 and also 2008. The goal is that when an individual becomes the nominee in 2008, we will be able to hand off to them a ground game.”
Prior to the 72-Hour Program, Democrats were usually credited with better get-out-the-vote campaigns, primarily due to the efforts of organized labor. Historically, Democratic candidates frequently outperformed polls conducted in the days leading up to national elections.
The 2000 presidential race is a case and point. A slew of last-minute polls showed Bush with a 3-point to 5-point edge over then-Vice President Al Gore, but on Election Day Gore received 500,000 more votes, only to lose the presidency in the electoral vote count.
Four years later, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won 9 million more votes than Gore but still lost by more than 3 million to Bush. Bush’s 62 million votes represented a 23 percent increase from his vote total in 2000.
The effect of the improved turnout program trickled down to Congressional races: Republicans have gained six Senate seats and 12 House seats since 2002, further solidifying their majorities in both chambers.
While Republicans have increasingly centralized their turnout operation within the RNC, Democrats largely relied on 527 groups — so named for the section of the tax code that governs their activities — to handle their get-out-the-vote efforts in the last election.
America Coming Together, the largest of these groups, raised $140 million to fund registration and turnout effort in a handful of swing states in 2004.
Many Democrats believe that bills currently moving through Congress could severely curtail organizations like ACT, and thus turnout efforts in future elections by bringing them under the auspices of the Federal Election Commission.
Perhaps with an eye toward a diminished role for 527s in future elections, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has put heavy emphasis on strengthening state parties, even in regions currently dominated by Republicans. To that end, Dean gave state parties nearly $500,000 in April.
The DNC did not return a call seeking comment on its efforts.
Republicans argue that in races so far this year, their party has shown an ability to make inroads in traditionally Democratic territory.
As evidence, Republican officials point to an April 5 special election in Missouri to fill a vacancy created when state Sen. Steve Stoll left the seat to become city administrator of Festus, Mo.
The district, centered in the St. Louis suburbs of Jefferson County, was carried by Kerry in 2004 and had been held by a Democrat since 1958.
The contest drew attention statewide and nationally as the two major party candidates spent more than $600,000.
Democrats brought in a number of heavy-hitters to campaign on behalf of state Rep. Rick Johnson, including former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the 2004 vice presidential nominee.
The RNC conducted a voter identification program in the district that found 5,900 persuadable households, both inside and outside the Republican Party, that expressed a willingness to support businessman and former state Rep. Bill Alter (R).
Republicans credit the effort with boosting turnout “within non-base precincts by 5 percent” over the 2004 presidential race, according to the Mehlman memo.
Alter defeated Johnson by 66 votes; a recount improved his margin to 72 votes.
Democrats counter that Alter’s win was more the result of a split Democratic vote than any turnout success.
Democratic state Rep. Harold Selby ran in the race as an Independent, taking 27.5 percent of the vote and receiving just 600 votes less than the victorious Alter.
Among the other races mentioned in the Mehlman memo: a victory in a competitive Pennsylvania state Senate seat previously held by Rep. Charlie Dent (R); a 39-point Republican win in a New York state Senate seat where the party carried only a 7-percent registration advantage; and a loss in a Tennessee state Senate district in which the GOP was nonetheless able to boost past party performance by 10 percent.