Organizing for America, the grass-roots arm of the Democratic National Committee, is kicking off a campaign to try to re-create the fervor of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and lure those first-time voters back to the polls to help Democratic candidates this fall.
But even OFA’s plan to pour $50 million into the effort may not be enough to convince House Members that OFA is an effective ally since some feel that it failed to deliver help during the contentious health care debate when they needed it the most.
OFA launched its Vote 2010 campaign Saturday by dispatching 16,000 volunteers to participate in 1,300 canvasses and phone banks nationwide. The organization, which boasts an unprecedented arsenal of 13 million e-mail addresses, will also lean on its website to re-engage with 2008’s first-time voters.
“Those first-time voters from 2008 have a special relationship with the president. … We want to make sure they understand the connection between races happening this fall and the president — and what the stakes are if we don’t continue to elect people who stand with the president,” OFA spokeswoman Lynda Tran said.
But back on Capitol Hill, some senior House Democratic aides described a skepticism running through their Caucus when it comes to OFA. The main reason, aides said, is because some feel the group dropped the ball when it came to mobilizing the public in support of Obama’s No. 1 priority — health care reform.
“The truth is that a lot of Members feel like those guys were supposed to provide some air cover during health care and they never saw it,” a leadership aide said. “I think people are glad to see that they’re doing something, but right now those guys don’t have a ton of credibility.”
Another senior aide said that while Members are likely to take all the help they can get, the reality is that many are concerned that the aid they really need
is not available.
“To date, there hasn’t been much help,” the aide said. “There have been asks for help and promises of help, and nothing has much happened. … There is also a suspicion that this is more focused on 2012 for the president than 2010.”
Democrats who opposed health care reform also may have misgivings about working with OFA because the group targeted some of them and rallied their constituents to lobby them to vote for the bill. “There are some burned feelings on that end,” one Democratic strategist said.
“It was a difficult enough time dealing with the health care debate, but at the same time, you had Members that were getting calls to their offices directed from the OFA. They were like, I thought we were all on the same team? What’s the deal here?'” the strategist said.
But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, dismissed the idea that there are any lingering tensions among Members targeted by OFA. The Florida Democrat chalked up the group’s missteps as “growing pains” and turned attention to its unprecedented role in mobilizing millions of Democratic supporters.
“Every political party, every candidate and campaign struggles with finding a way to engage their volunteers in an off-election year,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It might have irritated some people while those growing pains were occurring, but it’s really a fantastic model that allows us to advance the president’s agenda.”
And with midterm election season now in full swing, OFA will return to its “more natural fit” of getting involved in a campaign and doing what they have “proven they’re really good at,” she said.
Wasserman Schultz said that while nobody believes the momentum that led up to Obama’s historic election win can be re-created, it will be “a huge help” to Democrats if OFA can turn out even a small percentage of 2008’s first-time voters given how many there were: 15 million.
House and Senate Democrats are facing stiff political headwinds across the board this cycle and are hoping to at least minimize the losses to try keep control of Congress.
“It can be the difference between winning and losing,” she said.
DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer agreed: “We look forward to OFA’s support this cycle as there are numerous House races where they will be able to make a difference.”
Some Members have wasted no time getting involved with OFA’s new campaign. Rep. Tom Perriello (Va.), who is among those targeted by OFA for wavering on his health care vote, is already working with the group to channel support from 2008’s first-time voters, according to one aide. And Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.) attended an OFA gathering Saturday and gave a speech thanking volunteers for supporting him in his Senate campaign.
“We’ve definitely had both current Members of Congress and candidates out and about at events” since OFA kicked off its campaign over the weekend, Tran said.
The OFA spokeswoman said that while it is “a little bit of apples to oranges” to compare any efforts in 2010 to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, the fact that the group already has 16,000 volunteers in place five months ahead of the November election is “really unheard of.”
“This is a very well-trained, professional group of volunteers who know what they’re doing. They know their work will have a deep impact on what happens,” she said.