By Maeve Reston
October 20, 2017
Bliss heads the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He is trying to upend the traditional super PAC model by plowing money into a hyper-targeted field program run out of 30 offices nationwide, like the one he set up here in the district of Republican Rep. David Valadao, which Hillary Clinton carried by 15 points last year.
Historical patterns show that the party in control of Congress almost always loses seats in the first midterm following a presidential election, a fact readily acknowledged by Bliss.
“History says we’re going to lose the House,” said Bliss.
So he’s experimenting with his new model to try to defy that history.
“The old model is that I raise as much money as I possibly can raise. I save it all and then I spend it all on TV ads the last five weeks before the election,” Bliss said. “I fundamentally think the old model is lazy and stale, and doesn’t work.”
Bliss’s theory of the election is this: Control of the House will be decided by a universe of 50,000 voters in these 30 closely-contested districts. CLF has identified those voters and is collecting data on the local issues most important to them. Once they have that nailed down, they plan to have “a meaningful conversation” until Election Day to explain what their incumbent congressman is doing to help constituents with those issues.
He proved the efficacy of that approach in the special elections earlier this year as well as in Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s 2016 re-election race. In an early 2015 data study in Toledo, Portman’s campaign determined that the harmful effects of the algae bloom in Lake Erie was a top issue for about 200,000 voters. For the ensuing year and a half, they door-knocked, made phone calls and targeted those voters online and by mail with detailed information explaining what Portman was doing to help combat the algae bloom.
That’s the kind of message that CLF is trying to get across here in the outskirts of Bakersfield. Here, the group is focusing on water scarcity issues that have persisted for decades in the Central Valley.
On paper, Democrats would appear to have an advantage here in California’s 21st congressional district. It is about 75% Latino and Democrats have a 17-point registration advantage. But Valadao, who speaks Portuguese and Spanish, has proved difficult to dispatch.
As the son of an immigrant father who started a dairy farm after moving here from Portugal’s Azores Islands, Valadao, who is 40, is steeped in the region’s water issues. While Democratic super PACs intend to shower money on his district to draw attention to his vote for the Republican health care bill and the thousands who would have lost coverage, Valadao and his allies are trying to steer the conversation back to water.
The Congressional Leadership Fund’s youthful door-knockers, many of whom were recruited from the local Christian and public high schools, are well-versed in these issues because many of them come from families linked to farming or the secondary industries that support it.
Their ability to get people to answer the door is impressive. Voters seem more willing to engage with high school students than middle-aged volunteers. Bliss views the intern system as a training program for the next generation of Republican activists.
On a recent afternoon, CLF’s interns fanned out across middle class neighborhoods where Spanish-language radio sometimes blared from open garages. Many of the people who came to the door spoke Spanish. Some expressed concern about Trump’s vows to crack down on undocumented immigrants — an issue where Valadao has disagreed with the harsh tone of the President — but said they were open to supporting the Republican congressman.
In the minute-long survey, the doorknockers use their iPhones to record what the voters think of Trump and whether they are familiar with water legislation that Valadao has backed in the Senate. They leave the voters with literature listing the water bills he’s championed.
“A lot of people offer plans to fix the water supply” at the door, said an 18-year-old CLF intern named Austin Gaines. He recounted how one man sent him away because he was in the middle of cooking eggs, but then ran outside as Austin was leaving the block to engage him in a 40-minute conversation.
A 16-year-old CLF intern named Jessica Stump, who goes door to door to these Republican and independent households several days a week, said the question about whether voters approve of Trump gets mixed results.
Valadao knows he has to strike a tenuous balance here in a district full of ticket-splitters, and he often explains to voters that he doesn’t agree with Trump on everything — namely immigration. (He has signed on to a Democratic bill to help young undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at an early age by their parents. He has also pursued a more expansive guest worker program that would help dairies and other agricultural operators here bring in more skilled workers for year-round labor.)
But the quest to bring more water to the Central Valley for agriculture, in particular, has helped Valadao gain his foothold here.
The fight has been going on for generations, and it was aggravated by California’s sustained drought. In a telephone interview, Valadao said it remained the top issue for his constituents, and he fears things will get worse if Democrats take control of Congress.
“Obviously the (national) Democratic Party has been the exact opposite of what our district wants on water,” Valadao said, noting that some local Democrats have been supportive of his efforts. “The first priority is helping cities that are running out of water, farmers that are running out of water.”
“Anyone who says that the drought is over, as if it’s never coming back, obviously has no understanding that this is the way it’s always been,” Valadao said. “We will have more dry years coming up and if we don’t plan for that, if we don’t adjust and fix the issues that we’ve got, we’re just going to be right back talking about the same issues.”
Signs along the highway here have marked the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” for years. During the Obama years, Republicans excoriated Democrats for the environmental regulations that limited water deliveries to the Central Valley as part of protections for the endangered small fish known as the Delta Smelt.
The potency of the issue, said California GOP Chair Jim Brulte, has helped Valadao in all of his re-election campaigns. “When you look at what the left does with water policy, it’s a direct hit, not just the people who live here, but the people who work here,” Brulte said.
The Democrats, Brulte charged, “are more interested in taking care of bait fish. … That’s why you have David Valadao, a Republican, in a district that Clinton carried by 15 points.”
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