GOP Builds Massive Shadow Army In Fight For The House
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Asking you who you are voting for this far out is meaningless,” Bliss said. “If you tell us what the two things are that you care about most, we should be able to get you.”
That means each of its field offices emphasizes different policies. In Illinois, it’s Reps. Peter Roskam’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In Florida, Rep. Brian Mast’s work on Lake Okeechobee gets top billing. And in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, volunteers talk up Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s effort to clean water contamination wells.
The group opened its first field office in February 2017 in Rep. Don Bacon’s Nebraska district, quickly identifying 40,000 voters who cared most about supporting Offutt Air Force Base and then working to convince them that Bacon was its champion.
Students have become the focal point of the operation, staffing the offices Monday through Saturday in rotating shifts. CLF actually chose its field office locations by looking for the largest number of high schools within a 25-minute radius. Staff members recruit volunteers at career fairs or in civics classes, then give them a list of neighborhoods to hit over and over again.
In the Orange County office, one student touted Walters’ vote on the tax bill, encouraging an undecided voter to “look at your paycheck” to see whether he or she was receiving more money. Another told a voter concerned about national security that the congresswoman “is fighting for a stronger military.”
This week, CLF will announce three new offices, one each for vulnerable Reps. John Faso of New York and Fred Upton of Michigan and a third in Minnesota, where the party is vying for an open seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan.