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More than 200 volunteers will knock on doors in California this weekend, and while they aren’t representing a specific candidate, they do have a cause: keeping the Republican majority in the House.
The volunteers are working on behalf of a conservative super PAC that has set up offices in four California congressional districts 17 months before the 2018 election.
And if you are a swing voter, they may want to talk to you.
The Congressional Leadership Fund isn't an arm of the congressional campaigns, so federal law prohibits them from coordinating with the candidates or their campaigns. But the political action committee and its sister nonprofit, the American Action Network, have the blessing of House Republican leaders and spent $50 million in 2016 to help Republicans hold onto their majority, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Super PACs traditionally pay for many of the political ads that flood the airwaves, but after the 2016 election, the Congressional Leadership Fund looked for new ways to play a role, said Corry Bliss, executive director of both groups.
“The world is changing, and outside groups should be more than TV factories. What we are providing for these members is more valuable than an extra television commercial,” Bliss said.
The answer, they decided, was to go into a competitive district early, identify the swing voters, find out what they care about and then talk about those topics consistently in ads and online.
“Our goal is to come out with a list of about 60,000 to 80,000 voters that we determine are the crucial [votes],” Bliss said. “We’re focused on that small group of voters for two years. We’re not talking to every voter in the district. That’s up to the campaign to do.”
They’re setting up shop in the districts held by Reps. David Valadao (R-Hanford), Steve Knight (R-Palmdale), Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), and are hiring staff, renting office space and training volunteers to survey the targeted voters.
Volunteers in Knight’s district ask voters if the congressman should be focused on transportation, veterans or balancing the budget. In Valadao’s Central Valley district, the questions are about water, veterans or overhauling immigration laws.
A third of the 12 districts where the PAC is organizing are in California, and there are plans to move into at least two more California districts soon, Bliss said, adding that it “shows you how serious we are about California, how important California will be.”
All four of the California districts reelected their Republican congressmen by large margins in 2016 but also picked Hillary Clinton for president. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened a West Coast office in Irvine, with officials saying it’s a sign of how important flipping GOP seats in California is for Democrats to retake control of the House.
But Bliss dismissed the effort and said he expects precinct-level messaging to sway the outcome by as much as five percentage points.
Bliss managed the reelection campaign of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), where Portman used targeted, localized messaging to win 58.03% of the vote, while President Trump won the state by only 51.69%
“They didn’t view him through the prism of the presidential race,” Bliss said. “We had created a unique and distinct brand for Rob Portman that was separate and apart.”
The PAC plans to spend $1 million in each district in 2018, Bliss said.
“This model really works. It requires a lot of time, a lot of effort and lot of money, but I think it’s a worthwhile investment,” Bliss said. “No one has ever done this. Certainly no one has ever done this this early.”