Campaign finance reports hint at parties' goals

PHILIP ELLIOTT Associated Press Published:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans are trying to convert hard-won gains in statehouses to successes in this November's congressional elections and the 2016 race for the White House, according to a review of their campaign finance reports.

For Democrats, the next two years are more about protecting political turf and keeping a political machine humming.

Months before the midterm elections that will decide House and Senate control, with an eye on the 2016 presidential race, the major parties are making spending choices that give clues to their election strategies. An Associated Press analysis of the parties' spending since the 2012 presidential campaign suggests Republicans are trying to copy the Democrats' playbook: Build strong on-the-ground political operations in crucial states and collect as much data as possible.

"We have to make sure that we put together a process and an operation that gives our (presidential) nominee the best possible platform to be successful," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday.

"The RNC had become basically a U-Haul trailer of cash that gets hooked up to a nominee for a short period of time and then the national party went away for three years," he said, adding that six-month approach has left the GOP out of the White House for two terms.

Such cash is starting to be delivered sooner, according to more than 80,000 pages of campaign finance reports the RNC and DNC have filed with the Federal Election Commission since January 2013.

Two years before they choose nominees in the next presidential race, both parties are sending millions of dollars to state committees. Republicans are skipping over liberal strongholds like Maryland and Vermont, as well as solidly conservative Idaho, while Democrats are sending cash to each state affiliate, even the most conservative ones.

The Republican National Committee already has sent $6 million to state parties, the bulk of it to places such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan where the GOP has been successful locally but failed in recent presidential contests. Almost 70 percent of RNC money has been sent to states where Republicans hold the governor's office and President Barack Obama won re-election.

Democrats, too, are sending money to must-win states but also to high-stakes statewide Senate races in Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas. In total, Democrats have spent almost $8 million to keep their political machine running and supporters engaged.

Most of that -- more than $5 million -- has gone to states where Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. Of that, $3.6 million has gone to states with a Republican governor.

At the same time, the Democratic National Committee separately has spent another almost $2 million to keep its sophisticated databases up to date in the states.

The results: 160 employees on state parties' payrolls through the RNC transfer program and 60 Democratic operatives through theirs. Those are on top of the payrolls the state parties themselves fund.

Neither party prescribes how the state organizations spend the money, deferring to state party chiefs who are on the ground and know what they need.

Republicans say they are optimistic the approach might lead to parity in campaign organizations heading into 2014's elections and 2016's race for the White House.

"Traditionally, the party would drop a bunch of resources in during August of an election year and drop people in from out of the state in a one-size-fit-all approach," said Ryan Call, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Committee. "That doesn't work."

His state party has received almost $96,000 since the last presidential election and more is on the way.

Call has already hired some on-the-ground organizers and an operative to coordinate the party's outreach to Asian voters.

In coming weeks, Call plans to use RNC money to hire 11 more field workers, as well as an aide to coordinate outreach to Hispanic voters and two more hands to execute that work. In total, the state GOP will have 20 RNC-paid aides on the ground.

Colorado Democrats, meanwhile, have picked up $120,000 from the party to help with payroll and $40,000 to update their records on each voter's habits, preferences and location.

"For the state party and the Democratic candidates, the voter file is the most valuable tool people have in their boxes," said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio. "It's a fairly expensive project."

The state-by-state spending reveals only hints of the parties' priorities. Only about $1 out of every $10 the national committees spend goes right back to the states as cash. Accounting systems don't capture all of the spending on consultants, pollsters and data consultants that largely fall on the payrolls in Washington but that state parties lean on.

For instance, the RNC's headquarters is picking up the tab for an in-the-works data project that will later be used by candidates across the country. Its final cost is not yet known. The RNC also has picked up some $600,000 in office space and equipment outside of Washington.

The RNC spending is making a dramatic difference in places like Michigan, where the committee has sent about $300,000. There, Republicans have opened 12 offices and have hired 16 new hands. Those operatives have recruited 2,400 precinct captains already, covering about half of the state's election districts.

Michigan GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak called the RNC involvement "unprecedented."

"We've been able to leverage their support and develop a ground game that is a return to true precinct operations on a neighbor-to-neighbor level," Schostak said.

The DNC, meanwhile, is trying to keep the vaunted Obama political machine in place. Of the $2 million the DNC explicitly set aside for keep track of every voter and report back to the DNC's central database, $40,000 went into New Hampshire.

"It's a significant sum of money that helps us operate and prepare for the 2014 cycle," said Raymond Buckley, the New Hampshire Democrats' chairman.

A decade ago, the party in New Hampshire would be spending as much as $70,000 a year to keep the files updated as a stand-alone database, Buckley said. In recent years, all state Democratic parties have combined their databases, creating a national network that helped Obama win a second term.

That approach to data is a model the RNC is trying to replicate, with 2014's elections as a test run for the big prize: the White House in 2016.

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