Election Day 2012, a day many on the right, including myself, thought would bring victories all across the country, and here in Colorado. Colorado Republicans had hoped for and somewhat expected not only a top ticket win for Romney, but a possible retak-ing of the State Senate and widening their majority in the State House. No one expected the night to end with the gavel being proverbially torn from Frank McNulty’s hand, but that’s ex-actly what happened. Republicans lost control of the house, losing several in-cumbents and every challenger thought to be competitive from Brian Watson in HD 3 to Bob Morain in HD 52.
Right wing activists are quick to try and point the finger at everything from relatively unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud to an ill informed electorate being snookered by the left. The truth is Republicans were out worked, out hustled, out organized and out performed.
In Colorado Republicans lost the ground game — which is where down ballot races must be won. My firm, Bull Dog Strategies, commissioned and produced over a half million dollars in direct mail this cycle. There is no bigger advocate for an aggressive, offensive mail campaign than me, but a swing voter, in a swing state will receive on average of three or more pieces of political mail per day. This is where down ballot races have an advantage the top of the ticket doesn’t. Through an aggressive voter identification program, volunteers can identify the leaning of every single swing voter — then the candidate can meet them in person, at their door step. Having said that, this kind of operation requires organization, money, months if not years of volunteer recruitment, and experienced over sight. Too often in 2012, Republican legislative candidates merely went knocking on the doors of all the unaffiliated voters on the voter rolls. Targeting a voter simply by their affiliation is unreliable, and a gigantic waste of resources and time, but many of the Republican candidates fielded in 2012 were first time candidates and simply didn’t know any better.
Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call and his staff deserve the utmost respect for their ability to put together the Trailblazer program, and finance Republican down ballot candidates to a larger extent than any of their predecessors, but the party needs to build on what it did in 2012 for 2014. Money equals viability in politics, but a successful field operation is the difference between a win and a loss. The Colorado Republican Party needs to integrate voter contact requirements into their Trailblazer program, which determines the degree to which the party will fund any given candidate.
Most importantly Republicans in Colorado need to focus on building a year-round sustainable field operation to identify, register and mobilize voters. In Virginia, especially the battle ground county of Fairfax, the phones hum year round in the basement of the county Republican Party office off of Chain Bridge Road. Fairfax County, a metro area county bordering Washington DC, should by all accounts be a Democratic strong hold, but isn’t because year round the party runs a field operation with military like precision. Republicans in Colorado need to follow this example and stop relying on the RNC Victory Operation that flies in a few months before an election, and glues together a staff with no institutional knowledge. The national operation should be an augmentation to ground work laid in the state all throughout the year.
A year round field operation would allow Republicans to drive up vote totals in outlier counties, which has to be a significant part of our strategy for winning the state back. In 2001 under the leadership of Blaise Hazelwood the RNC conducted an experiment placing a field operation in the rural Republican area of Winchester, Virginia to campaign on behalf of Mark Early, the Republican candidate for governor. The same year in Roanoke, a similar Republican rural area, the national committee deliberately did not conduct an expanded field operation. Winchester performed a full five points better than expected, and better than Roanoke. Winchester didn’t suddenly become five points more Republican, but the field team placed there was able to identify and turn out conservative voters who typically wouldn’t vote in that type of an election. Had Ken Buck run such an operation in just 11 Republican stronghold counties it is very likely he would be a United States Senator today. Such an operation all told, would have cost less than one direct mail piece to all of Buck’s voters.
It is more than possible for Republicans to retake Colorado in 2014, if the party places a renewed emphasis on the ground game and takes a page out of the playbook that Obama has now beat us with two elections in a row.
If Republicans refuse to course correct and learn lessons from this cycle, than we might as well close up shop in the Centennial State.
Rory McShane is a Republican political operative and strategist who has worked on dozens of Republican campaigns ranging from school board to presidential campaigns throughout the countries. McShane is currently a partner at Bull Dog Strategies, a Republican consulting firm with offices in Northern Virginia and Denver.