Udall needs Democratic ground game to come up big again

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AURORA -- Looking to rally a room full of volunteers to work hard on his behalf over the final 18 days of the campaign, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall told them that the national pundits, looking at polls showing him trailing GOP Congressman Cory Gardner, are "already counting us out."

It's the standard "win one for the Gipper" rhetoric you're likely to hear a lot from candidates in the closing days of a campaign; but, in Udall's case, it's simply not true.

In fact, national pundits are looking cautiously at a series of polls showing Gardner with a lead, knowing that the Democratic ground game has broken Republican hearts in Colorado several times of late, lifting Democrats to victory after late polls showed them behind.

In 2010, Sen. Michael Bennet trailed in all but one of the final 18 polls of that year's race against Republican Ken Buck, but he went on to win by just more than one percentage point thanks to an unexpected turnout by Hispanic voters and a 17-point margin of victory with women.

"Even though in last election cycles, the polling has shown Republicans up, we haven't always turned out that vote," said Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call, who believes 2014 will be different.

"We believe we have the resources and that they're being deployed wisely and a whole lot smarter than they've been deployed in the past to connect with people in their communities."

Whereas the GOP turnout operation has heretofore consisted of volunteers sitting in an office and calling voters on the phone, this year's effort is informed by the hard-learned lessons of elections past and an effort to replicate the successful Democratic model of sending volunteers into neighborhoods to make face-to-face contact with voters.

Republicans have opened 14 field offices across the state, more than the party has ever had before.

Democrats, building on a foundation laid over the past decade, have 25 such offices, more than 100 paid staffers and around 4,000 unpaid volunteer canvassers.

Craig Hughes, who oversaw Bennet's 2010 campaign and ran President Obama's 2012 operation in Colorado, believes a strong field operation is worth around four percentage points in the final margin.

"If you're looking at 3 million ballots going out, you have a Republican advantage here of about 6 percent, roughly, the question is how much can you narrow that down, get the younger voters, the infrequent voters -- those who skipped 2010 -- to turnout," he said. "And I think you can move a couple points of difference there."

Democrats are hopeful they might do even better this year thanks to Colorado's new elections law, which makes sure that every voter is sent a mail-in ballot and allows voter registration as late as Election Day; and Hughes believes the overall electoral climate is better for Udall than it was for Bennet in 2010, when he was the only Democrat to survive a national Tea Party tidal wave.

"I think Udall has a little better electorate, a better mood of the voter, and quite frankly a bigger ground game than we had in 2010," Hughes said.

It's hard to understate how much of this year's focus on field teams is the result of Bennet's 2010 win.

Not only did it provide an instructive model to Republicans and Democrats alike, it's elevated Bennet to the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which oversees the party's effort to save its majority in the Senate.

In that role, Bennet and Guy Cecil, his former chief of staff who's now running the DSCC, have put more resources than ever before into building a ground game that can make the difference in close Senate contests from Alaska to Arkansas.

The initiative is even dubbed the Bannock Street Project for the Denver location of Bennet's main 2010 field office.

"In past years, we spent seven times as much of our budget on TV ads than we did on field," Bennet told me earlier this year. "This year, that ratio is down to two-to-one."

Ironically, the strategy may face its toughest test here in Colorado, where Udall appears to need a large margin of victory with women and a big turnout from Hispanic voters to stave off Gardner, who has run a far superior campaign to Buck's 2010 effort.

Udall may benefit from a coordinated effort by Democratic organizations that have also recognized the importance of a more muscular field program and have made unprecedented investments in Colorado.

Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate, the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund are also implementing a data-driven voter-targeting program in Colorado, a place where the groups agree the strategy -- both targeting specific voters and contacting them face-to-face and leveraging the issue of climate change to motivate them to cast ballots -- may yield the highest dividends.

"One of the reasons Democrats are better at field is because they have to be," Hughes said. "The Republican electorate tends to be a little older, vote more often; in off-year elections, they're more reliable. So to make up for that advantage, you've got to implement the type of field game you see here this year."

Republicans recognize the imperative of neutralizing the Democratic ground game, but they're confident that 2014 will be the year they finally end a 12-year losing streak in the top statewide races.

"They claim that they're going to win because of tactics," Call said. "We're going to win because we have a compelling candidate and a compelling message."

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