Four years ago, as Democrats surveyed the destruction of the 2010 midterm elections, there were few bright spots.
In a historic electoral wave, the party had ceded its House majority to Republicans and lost six seats in the Senate. It was a rout, almost completely.
But there was an unlikely survivor: Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who eked out a narrow victory over his Republican opponent, Ken Buck. On the day after the election, Bennet delivered his victory speech in Denver at the spot where President Obama had signed the stimulus bill into law.
"The prognosticators and pundits ... are dividing our country into red and blue," Bennet told supporters. "And when they get to Colorado, let me tell you, they're not going to know what happened. They're going to scratch their heads and wonder, what the heck is going on out here?"
Today, Bennet is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which this year must stave off another potential Republican wave if Democrats are to keep a majority in the Senate — and Bennet’s party is counting on him and a few key members of his 2010 campaign team to recreate their rare magic from four years ago.
Last month, in a significant step toward that goal, the DSCC unveiled the rough sketch of a plan to get voters to the polls and persuade them to vote for Democrats. It's called the Bannock Street Project, named for Bennet’s former campaign headquarters at 1100 Bannock Street in Denver. (The address now houses a gym.)
In an interview with the New York Times, DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil, who was the architect of Bennet's 2010 victory, described the initiative as “making a fundamentally different choice” in campaign strategy.
“Yes, we have to be on TV, and yes, we have to help close the gap between Democrats and Republicans on the air, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the turnout operation or the field operation to do that,” Cecil told the Times.
The project will require thousands of new staff and cost an estimated $60 million — a massive increase from the $22 million the DSCC set aside for field operations in 2012, or the $7.5 million the committee spent in 2010. So far, field directors and coordinated campaign directors have been hired in ten targeted states, and Democrats are in the process of hiring other top field staffers.
There’s no secret to their special sauce, Democrats say. What happened in Colorado, and what they hope to engineer again, merely requires time, money and focus.
“I think to some extent, part of what made it unique was just that it was the result of a long-term planning process,” Cecil told the Washington Examiner. “From the very beginning of the election, there was emphasis on voter contact and persuading voters.”
In particular, the campaign targeted women. In conversations with voters, television ads and direct mail, Bennet's team highlighted sexist comments by Buck and his opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest.
There weren’t any major shifts in the makeup of the electorate, nor an astronomical turnout for Democrats. Indeed, Republicans won every other statewide office that year except governor.
But by drawing a stark contrast between the candidates, Democrats were able to motivate an important niche of voters. Bennet won women by 16 percentage points, an astronomical margin.
“The reality is that Buck lost because he stuck his foot in his mouth time and again, and he turned off Republican-leaning suburban women voters who pulled the lever for Republicans in other races but not for him,” said one Republican strategist involved with Senate races in 2010.
Also instrumental to Bennet’s narrow victory was his team’s investment in modeling and data, bolstered by a fresh trove of information from Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Colorado, which he won by more than eight points.
Democrats will not have that advantage this November in many of the battleground states, such as Louisiana and Alaska, which have not seen a competitive presidential race in years and where the party's voter data is stale.
In states without data, Cecil said, “we build it.” He added, “Alaska actually has a huge number of voter IDs on file. So it’s not as if these states have nothing.”
Democrats believe they are starting early enough, and appealing to donors actively enough, that they will have time to clear this and other obstacles — unlike in 2010, when Bennet faced a competitive primary race.
“We did not build our field effort early enough, and part of that was because we had a very contested primary,” said Craig Hughes, Bennet’s 2010 campaign manager. “Investing in the field efforts early pays off late.”
“But it takes an investment,” Hughes added, “and that’s a risk.”