Republicans fight for 2014's early voters

Republican Joni Ernst (left) is facing off against Democrat Bruce Braley (right) for the U.S. Senate race in Iowa, where early voting is a key part of both parties' strategy.

Story highlights

  • Republican operations are pouring more resources than ever into early voting.
  • Democrats say they've had the early voting advantage and that the GOP won't bridge the gap.
  • Iowa Republicans have invested $1 million specifically for mobilizing early voters.
  • Early voting starts in Georgia on Monday.
Forget about pushing voters to the polls in the final 72 hours. Republican war rooms are now just as focused on turning voters into votes weeks before Election Day.
In their multi-front battle to win back the Senate and hold on to governor mansions, Republican operatives don't want their supporters to wait until Nov. 4, and they're investing real money, technology and manpower to try to match Democrats, on a playing field the left has dominated in recent contests.
Many credit an early voting advantage by Democrats for playing a key role in the 2012 presidential elections. The practice has upended the traditional electoral calendar and Republicans have revamped their approach, at a time when 33 states and the District of Columbia now offer some form of early voting.
In key battleground states like Georgia, where early voting begins Monday, Republican operations are pouring more resources than ever into get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of Election Day.
In Iowa, where residents have been voting for the last two weeks, Republicans are already starting to close the gap with Democrats after investing more than $1 million to mobilize early voters. That's a stark contrast to past election cycles when Republicans "focused barely any resources on it," Iowa Republican Party spokesman Jeff Patch said.
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"This midterm election cycle in particular has been the most early vote centered than any other election in previous history," Patch said. "I think we're going to make a huge dent."
In just the last week, Republicans have requested absentee ballots at a faster rate than Democrats -- more than doubling their count compared to just a 40% increase for Democrats in the last 10 days, according to numbers provided by the Iowa Secretary of State's office. Registered Republicans have also mailed in their early ballots at a faster pace than Democrats.
And while both parties have gotten their voters to submit more ballots than in 2010 so far, early Republican votes have more than doubled from 2010 while Democrats have only posted a 36% bump.
But Democrats still lead overall by more than 11,000 early votes and while Republicans expect to continue closing the gap, they don't believe they'll undo their rivals in the early vote count -- at least not this cycle.
"They're playing catch up," Iowa Democratic Party communications director Christina Freundlich said. "They're trying to teach their base about [early voting]. So we're already a couple steps ahead of them on that. We know that our base is going to be voting early."
Like her Republican counterparts in Iowa and other states, Freundlich declined to share early voting targets and program specifics. But Democrats are doing well, increasing their early voting turnout from the 2010 midterm as Democratic ballot requests already account for more than half of all requests.
And in Georgia, Republicans have spent months in the ramp up to early voting season building what Georgia GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney called "the largest grassroots operation the party has had in modern history."
"This is by far the most infrastructure that we've had in place," Mahoney said. "In years past, this would be the point where everyone would start opening up headquarters and making calls."
Instead, Republicans in the state have already cranked out about 700,000 calls and have about 1,000 "grassroots leaders" working a strengthened fieldwork operation thanks to smartphone "walk apps" that have replaced bulky walk books that had to be manually logged into the database.
Compounded with a "robust mail program," automated phone calls, emails and a social media push, Republicans in the state are hoping to mobilize more supporters to vote early for Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican Senate candidate David Perdue, who are both locked in competitive races.
Those efforts have helped Republicans identify those supporters in a state with no partisan voter registration -- and now the race is on to turn them out, and early. Those supporters will now hear from fieldworkers next week -- many for at least the second time -- reminding them that early voting has started.
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"We just have a lot on the line. We have highly competitive gubernatorial race and U.S. Senate race going along for almost six months. Republicans wanted to be a part of this [early voting push.] We wanted to make sure that we set a precedent," Mahoney said. "We want to let voters, the national media and also Democrats know that this is a red state and we're not going to give an inch."
Democrats aren't rolling over to let Republicans catch up, though, and the DNC's Vice Chair of Voter Registration and Participation Donna Brazile said the Democratic turnout operation has been operating in every state that has early voting.
"These elections are all about turning people out," Brazile said. "Democrats definitely cannot afford to have the kind of drop off we saw in 2010. We're redoubling our efforts."
RNC officials are also laser-focused on ramping up their early vote turnout operation, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
"We know that we need to increase our voter base to win in November and that means turning out voters who don't typically vote in mid-term elections," Kukowski said in an email. "We've always done absentee and early vote GOTV but we've put a new emphasis on it and broadened our efforts."
This year Republicans launched a voter mobilization website that helps people figure out where they can vote early and encourages them to take up the "vote challenge" on Facebook to encourage their friends to vote -- à la ice bucket challenge.
And the increased and more targeted data in RNC databases is going right into fieldworkers' hands, integrating email and social media campaigns that encourage Republicans to vote early with boots on the ground for the first time, Kukowski said.
In the perennial battleground state of Iowa, Republican officials have even brought in outside helping, hiring strategist David Kochel to boost the party's early turnout operation.
"We're confident that we're going to have the kind of results that will make it very difficult for Democrats to get the kind of lead that they need to win statewide elections this year," Kochel said.
Kochel said his efforts are part voter mobilization, part stimulating cultural change among Republican voters who tend to prefer the traditional, polling booth method of voting on the first Tuesday of November. Even Kochel said he still prefers to vote on Election Day, and does.
And Kochel said Republicans are looking to capitalize on a high-energy midterm election that is expected to generate higher turnout than the 2010 midterm -- pushing voters to mail in their vote ahead of Nov. 4 will help Republicans better manage Election Day efforts.
"You never know what's going to happen late in the campaign," Kochel said. "There are twists and turns that happen in the campaign. You'd rather chase your voters early and get them in the door."
And state party officials say Republican candidates Joni Ernst and Gov. Terry Branstad have also been more visible in driving voters to flood the early vote.
The focus on early voting in Iowa came this summer when the governor's campaign pushed the state party to make early voter mobilization a priority.
"[Branstad] made it really clear that this is how they thought that Republicans needed to run their campaigns and their party to get back to winning not just the U.S. Senate race but state senate races as well," Patch said.
But even Patch concedes that Republicans have been playing catch-up, not just on the early voting front, but also in overall fieldwork this summer.
"Ultimately, I don't think anyone in the Republican Party is going to say we had a better ground game than the Democrats did in June or July," Patch said. "[But] we've rapidly raised the resources to be competitive."