Paul Nitze: It’s difficult to win without a ground game | AspenTimes.com

Paul Nitze: It’s difficult to win without a ground game

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

If you’ve knocked on doors for Michael Bennet recently, as I did a couple of weeks back, you know that Democrats’ enthusiasm is at rock bottom. Once you’ve made it onto someone’s doorstep, you’ll usually prompt at least a pallid promise to vote. As I made my way through the Highlands neighborhood in Denver, a number of registered Democrats promised the opposite – under no condition would they turn out.

That kind of reaction explains why Bennet is leading Ken Buck by a couple of points among registered voters, but is at least four points down among likely voters. If the same candidates were running in 2002, Buck would rout Sen. Bennet to the tune of eight to 10 points. In 2010, this race is going to come down to the wire. Shifting demographics are part of the story, but it’s the Democrats’ ground game that is the bigger story.

Voter anger and the rise of the Tea Party may be the headline here and elsewhere, but that hides another narrative – how poor get-out-the-vote efforts and weak candidates will prevent Republicans from enjoying a landslide in Colorado.

When I worked out of Tom Strickland’s Loveland field office in 2002, it was painfully apparent that Republicans had the better ground game. He’s something of a political pinata these days, but state Republican chairman Dick Wadhams ate Democrats’ lunch for the better part of two decades. In the 1990s Wadhams pioneered the kind of targeted voter outreach that is standard procedure for modern campaigns.

Wadhams now claims that divisive primaries in the 1990s and early 2000s tore the party apart, but divisive primaries are nothing new for the GOP. Anyone remember the 1994 gubernatorial slugfest? That primary featured Mike Bird threatening to punch eventual nominee Bruce Benson in the face after Benson conducted anti-Bird push polling.

As late as 2008 state Republicans put together an impressive GOTV operation. They got hammered at the polls, but it wasn’t for lack of a field organization. This cycle is very different. Republicans are abandoning what they do best – get out the vote – and trying to win Colorado almost exclusively over the airwaves.

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Outside money has given the Senate race a semblance of parity on TV. Bennet has crushed Buck in hard money contributions – $7.7 million to $1.3 million as of June 30. But with $2 million in outside money spent either in his favor or against Bennet, plus a recent $750,000 ad buy, Buck has had a strong advertising presence.

The letter of the law says that this money can’t be coordinated, but that’s been enforced as well as an anti-pot ordinance at a Phish show. Shadow coordination of TV advertising is an easy trick. Coordination of grassroots efforts is much harder.

Republicans’ difficulties in turning out the vote are compounded by the state party’s lack of cash and the rise of the Tea Party. As of this summer, the state Republican party had less than half as much cash on hand as Democrats, and a fraction of what they had available in 2008. Tea Party activists are almost certain to vote Republican, but they’ve proved hard to organize. They don’t identify with the Tea Party because of their unalloyed affection for the GOP.

Meanwhile Democrats are enjoying the same infrastructure that’s been in place since 2004. Read Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer’s book “The Blueprint” if you want details. Schrager and Witwer show how four wealthy Democrats created a network of progressive groups, under the umbrella of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, that exists entirely apart from the state Democratic party.

It’s funded by reams of soft money. It enjoys a database of more than 400,000 e-mail addresses. It works persistently to develop candidates who may not be ready for prime time now, but will get there eventually. And it churns out polling and policy research designed to help Dems win over independent voters.

None of this changes the underlying dynamics of this cycle. Republicans will put points on the board. Just don’t be surprised if they settle for a field goal when they should have scored seven.