Democrats launch effort to get 2008 first-time voters back to polls for midterms

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; 12:03 PM

The Democratic National Committee is kicking off its 2010 midterm elections strategy this weekend with thousands of volunteers fanning out across the nation to knock on doors of people who voted for the first time in the 2008 presidential election and urge them to return to the polls.

Democrats are trying to jump-start the grass-roots network that Barack Obama built as a presidential candidate -- now called Organizing for America and housed at the DNC -- by staging more than 1,300 canvassing and phone banking events in communities nationwide on Saturday. Party officials said more than 16,000 volunteers have signed up to participate.

A key component of the national party's $50 million "Vote 2010" strategy to protect Democratic congressional majorities is persuading an estimated 15 million first-time voters -- many of whom registered as independents and supported Obama -- to turn out this November. Party officials believe these voters could help lift Democrats in a political environment that polls suggest favors Republicans.

"Millions of 2008 first-time voters have a special connection to President Obama and feel invested in his presidency, and through our Vote 2010 work we will connect these voters with their local candidates," Organizing for America director Mitch Stewart said. "That effort begins in earnest this Saturday."

When he announced the strategy in April, DNC Chairman Timothy M. Kaine acknowledged the difficulty of transferring the supporters that Obama cultivated over a historic two-year presidential bid to an assortment of other Democrats. But Kaine said he believes that persuading just a modest percentage of those voters to come to the polls again can help push Democrats over the top in close races.

In a sign of how difficult it may be to engage people who typically have not cast ballots in midterm elections, the DNC is revving up its field operations unusually early, five months out and with many states still in the throes of primary campaigns.

"Often campaigns and political committees and candidates begin to build their field resources in the fall, and you find that they try to scramble to put it together," DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse said. "We're not scrambling. . . . It's there. People are trained, people are engaged, they know the issues, and it's allowed us to do it in an unprecedented level."

Since Obama won the presidency, the White House and the DNC have strived to keep his 13 million-member grass-roots network engaged. Organizing for America staff members and volunteers helped build political support for Obama's policy agenda, including economic stimulus, financial regulatory reform and the health-care overhaul. They even rallied around his two Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

"We're not beginning to build this infrastructure now, but we have the infrastructure and we're putting it to work," Woodhouse said.

Few major candidates are expected to participate in Saturday's events, although Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, announced he would join canvassers in Phoenixville.

In addition to motivating new voters from 2008, the Vote 2010 strategy includes turning out traditional Democratic voters. And, as in past cycles, the DNC also plans to make cash contributions to the party's congressional and senatorial campaign committees, state parties and individual campaigns.

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