If Republicans win control of the Senate in November, they could owe their victory to a bunch of computer geeks and data nerds holed up in two offices 2,800 miles apart.
The Republicans need to flip six seats to wrest the Senate majority from the Democrats on a playing field that is expanding in the GOP's favor. Up to a dozen Democratic-held seats could be up for grabs -- more than half of them in red states -- as voters continue to sour on President Obama's leadership, health care law and stewardship of the economy. Only two Republican seats threaten to be competitive.
The battle could go down to a photo-finish in a half-dozen races to determine which party runs the chamber during Obama’s final two years in office — and the parties' voter-turnout operations could be the difference.
Enter the Republican National Committee's newly hired geeks.
Working out of RNC headquarters in Washington and a recently opened annex in San Mateo, in California's Silicon Valley, a growing staff of 40 has been working since last summer to bring the GOP's antiquated ground game into the digital age. Their goal: catch and surpass the Democrats who -- bolstered by the groundbreaking innovations of Obama's two presidential campaigns -- had a 10-year head start. The RNC believes its effort has turned a corner.
“We committed ourselves to a permanent, coast-to-coast, year-round ground game,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said during a roundtable with reporters. “We've invested in new predictive analytics that are revolutionizing how our campaigns are targeting voters.”
Color the Democrats skeptical.
After all, the Republicans are trying to copy an operation that the Democrats have been building, perfecting and training on for 10 years, ever since the party was outflanked by the GOP in the 2004 presidential election. Even if the RNC develops advanced digital tools in time for this year’s campaign, the committee has to teach a new crop of volunteers to use them, not to mention convince longtime strategists to embrace them.
But the Democrats aren't taking any chances. The party's turnout tends to suffer in midterm elections, a factor that could be magnified by voters' disaffection with Obama in the sixth year of his presidency.
The party's Senate campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is promising to spend $60 million on its own get-out-the-vote operation, an investment that is both unorthodox and substantial for a congressional campaign committee. Democrats contend that the program and the superior quality of their candidates and individual campaigns will compensate for any improvements the GOP makes on the ground and the political headwinds the party is facing across the country.
“People don’t tend to vote for their senators based on the national mood,” said a Democratic strategist, who added: “The Republicans are light years behind us in field and data.”
The RNC credits its improved field and digital programs for David Jolly's win over Democrat Alex Sink in a special election for Florida's 13th congressional district, and the party is counting on the overhauled operation to boost its November candidates as well.
Republicans expect to easily win open Senate seats in South Dakota and West Virginia, where the two incumbent Democrats are retiring. They also feel confident about their prospects in the red states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Montana, and like their chances in Alaska and North Carolina. The open seat in Michigan, currently held by the Democrats, also appears competitive. And now with former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., poised to challenge Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, the Republicans believe another race might be on the board.
The Democrats are on offense in Georgia, where Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is vying to turn a Republican-held open seat. In Kentucky, Clinton family friend and state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan grimes is locked in a tight race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is angling to become the majority leader.
In the Florida special election, the RNC deployed several new capabilities that it did not have in the 2012 election cycle, beginning with permanent field staff who live in the community and are familiar with local voters. Priebus boasts that the RNC has recruited more than 12,000 locally based precinct captains, each with a team of volunteers, who have been building relationships with voters, particularly in states with targeted Senate races.
On the digital side, the Republicans were able to gather and share voter data at unprecedented levels. That meant they had more information on each voter, allowing them to make more immediate, accurate decisions on which voters to target and how to appeal to them. It also meant that all Republicans working on the campaign operated from the same data, which helped ensure strategic unity and prevent different GOP entities from undermining each other.
The RNC has pledged that come Nov. 4, its operation will be even more advanced — and available to Republicans in every competitive Senate race. “We can’t, as a national committee, get to becoming a better presidential party unless I can build the tools, the data, the infrastructure, right now, in 2014, [and] test what we’re doing in a broad fashion,” Priebus said.