GOP builds massive shadow army in fight for the House
TUSTIN, Calif. — Republicans have amassed a sprawling shadow field organization to defend the House this fall, spending tens of millions of dollars in an unprecedented effort to protect dozens of battleground districts that will determine control of the chamber.
The initiative by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now includes 34 offices running mini-campaigns for vulnerable Republicans throughout the country. It has built its own in-house research and data teams and recruited 4,000 student volunteers, who have knocked on more than 10 million doors since February 2017.
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The operation far eclipses the group’s activity in any previous election, when CLF didn’t have a single volunteer or field office. At this time last election cycle, the group had raised $2 million. As of Tuesday, CLF — which markets itself to donors as a super PAC dedicated to saving the House majority and can collect contributions with no dollar limit — had hauled in more than $71 million.
That war chest and new infrastructure could be a significant factor in an election year dominated by expectations of a Democratic wave fueled by a backlash against President Donald Trump.
“We have to do everything bigger and better to have a chance,” Corry Bliss, CLF’s executive director, said in a recent interview sandwiched between fundraising events with Ryan. (The speaker attends the events as a draw, but Bliss asks for cash later, in accordance with campaign finance law.) “If we do the same BS, cookie-cutter ads, we’re going to lose.”
CLF’s midterm strategy, which emphasizes long-term voter engagement, is not normal for a super PAC. Typically, lawmakers’ campaigns and the National Republican Congressional Committee deal with field work and get-out-the-vote efforts — then PACs like CLF swoop in to fill in the blanks with what Bliss often refers to as “shitty TV ads.”
But Ryan’s political allies decided last year that that model wasn’t working — and that CLF, with its seemingly endless resources, was a “sleeping giant,” as they called it. They agreed to turn the PAC into a massive, hyper-local grass-roots organization. And they tapped Bliss, a former campaign manager, to run the operation.
“There was a belief shared by many that super PACs had become bloated in their role and, in some cases, did more damage than good,” said Ryan’s national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick, who helped steer the group’s makeover. “Ryan allies said: ‘How could they become more effective?’ and thought, ‘Why can’t super PACs basically run a shadow campaign?’”
Turns out they can.
The organization’s expansive operation has surpassed even the NRCC in its first year, at least as far as satellite field offices are concerned. The House’s traditional campaign arm has only one such office. And unlike CLF, which can spend its war chest wherever it sees fit, the NRCC has to cater to the more 240 dues-paying House Republicans, spreading its resources much thinner.
CLF’s new, more targeted structure also overshadows that of its Democratic rival, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority PAC, which has no field locations. Still, House Majority PAC spokesman Jeb Fain said CLF represents no threat, arguing that Democrats partner with other progressive organizations with get-out-the-vote field programs.
“This stuff is largely for show,” Fain said. “The other side’s candidates and campaigns suffer from a serious lack of grass-roots support, so they’re trying to manufacture a facade of enthusiasm.”
Whether CLF’s efforts can have a decisive impact in what’s shaping up to be a Democrat-favoring election year remains to be seen: The Hillary Clinton campaign’s daunting turnout organization was expected to make the difference against Trump in 2016.
But in a one-room office located in a downtown business district here in Orange County one recent evening, the group’s organizational muscle was apparent.
Two dozen high school and college kids crammed into the office, working the phones to help vulnerable GOP Rep. Mimi Walters’ reelection campaign. Flyers touting Walter’s achievements sat on counters, ready for those knocking doors. Signs on the wall read, “call, knock, win, repeat” and “Mimi Rocks.”
Working two phones at once, 18-year-old college freshman Liam Murphy prodded voters about their concerns. To one person anxious about the economy, he had ready an example of how Walters had worked on that very problem.
“Did you hear about the Tax Cut and Jobs Act [House Republicans] got passed in December?” Murphy told a voter concerned about the economy. “It was one of the biggest tax cuts in history.”
That, in a nutshell, is CLF’s strategy. While the group’s new in-house research team digs for negative information on Democrats, its data department polls key swing districts to identify issues that high-propensity swing voters care about most. Then the group sends its volunteers to talk to those voters in person, armed with literature and talking points touting what GOP incumbents have done to advance those causes.