WASHINGTON – The Washington Post’s Daily 202 highlighted CLF’s hyper-targeted, data-driven national field program and visited CLF’s field office in New York’s 24th Congressional District. The Washington Post focused on CLF’s efforts to “localize every key race” while noting specific issues in key congressional districts nationwide.
The Daily 202: Inside the House GOP super PAC’s strategy to localize every key race
By James Hohmann
THE BIG IDEA: MANLIUS, N.Y.—To save the Republican House majority, the Congressional Leadership Fund is focusing on a salmon hatchery in Seattle, a gas tax increase in Sacramento and an opioid epidemic in Syracuse.
The super PAC, which House GOP leaders have endorsed and raise money for, has field offices in 34 districts. With the help of polling and focus groups, strategists identified local issues in each one that they believe will motivate people who don’t typically vote in midterm elections or persuade swing voters to support a Republican incumbent for reelection even if they disapprove of President Trump.
Thousands of young volunteers drive these customized messages by calling targeted voters from phone banks or knocking on their front doors. The group says these high school and college-aged kids have already made 15 million voter contacts over the past year. The same themes will be echoed again and again during the next three months in mailers, television commercials, radio spots and digital ads.
At a field office in this suburb of Syracuse, seven interns telephoned targeted voters last Thursday afternoon to tell them about everything their local GOP congressman, John Katko, has been doing down in D.C. to crack down on the synthetic drugs that have ravaged their community.
Jessica Field, a rising senior at Duquesne University, is volunteering here over the summer in between shifts as a cashier at the Marshalls down the road. “Are you aware of the work Congressman Katko has been doing to make central New York safer?” the 21-year-old asked everyone who picked up. “One of his big pushes is to help families by fighting the opioid crisis.”
“Like drugs, yes,” she repeated. “That’s one of his big pushes. He’s been helping families that have been affected by that.”
On the other side of the country, volunteers in the Central Valley of California are telling voters that GOP Rep. Jeff Denham, another vulnerable incumbent, is fighting the unpopular gas tax increase that the state legislature recently passed.
In the suburbs north of Philadelphia, voters are learning that Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is focused on efforts to clean up contaminated water wells in Horsham, Warrington and Warminster. Outside Minneapolis, they’re being told that Rep. Erik Paulsen has been fighting to protect the Boundary Waters canoe area. In the Houston suburbs, the interns are telling everyone about Rep. John Culberson’s push for Hurricane Harvey relief money as a member of the Appropriations Committee.
In Seattle, the callers and door knockers note that Dino Rossi, who is running to replace the retiring Rep. Dave Reichert, led efforts in the state legislature to rebuild the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. In Denver, the message is that Rep. Mike Coffman is focused on oversight of the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Center. In Omaha, they’re talking about Rep. Don Bacon’s support for Offutt Air Force Base.
“Politics today are all about cynicism and skepticism,” said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the super PAC. “It’s equal on the Republican and Democratic side. The average person is not focused on politics, and they think politics is just a bunch of people trying to screw them. So if you don’t fill in the blank, the blank will be filled in by something negative. You have to convince people you are making a difference, and you have to talk to people about things they care about, or they will tune you out.”
Anticipating the tough national headwinds that any president’s party faces in his first midterms, the Congressional Leadership Fund started building its field program in early 2017. “Since we’ve been knocking on people’s doors for more than a year, we are building relationships and breaking through the noise,” said Bliss.
The office here in Manlius has been open since June 2017.
“Super PACs really need to get away from spending 90 percent of their budget on TV ads, paying four to five times the rate that campaigns do,” said Bliss. “The field program roughly costs the same as one TV ad in each congressional district. It’s a much better way to invest our money, especially in a midterm election with lower turnout. I strongly believe that there will be a number of races across the country that we will win because of the CLF field program.”
That’s not to say the group won’t run lots of commercials, too. CLF raised $51 million during the second quarter and started this month with $71 million cash on hand.
In many cases, as intended, the issue that the super PAC has seized on resonates strongly with voters. As an outside group, CLF cannot directly coordinate with the campaigns they are supporting. But often, the candidates are talking about the same things. In Minnesota, for example, Paulsen’s first ad was related to the Boundary Waters. Here in central New York, there are stories on the front pages of the local papers almost every day about the epidemic.
Katko spent two decades as a federal prosecutor focused on organized crime before getting elected to Congress in 2014. “I saw various drugs come and go,” he said in an interview, mentioning names like Molly, Spike and Ice. “But I’ve never seen anything as lethal as this heroin is now.”