Tea party activists banking on phone calls to turn out voters

Across the nation, tea party activists are using automated phone programs to get out the vote for their favorite conservative candidates.
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 12:27 AM

HILLSBORO, ORE. -- If the fortunes of this year's hardest-fought campaigns hinge on the final push to get out the vote, then what's going on inside a tidy bungalow along the railroad tracks of this Portland bedroom community matters a great deal.

Here, in between making dinner and baking cookies and celebrating the 16th birthday of one of her eight children, tea party activist Rosie Gagnon is working the phones, squeezing in 10 or 20 minutes or even an hour when she can, placing dozens of calls each day urging voters to support her favored candidates.

"Hello, my name is Rosie, and I'm a volunteer with FreedomWorks PAC, a grass-roots organization advocating for limited government," began Gagnon, reading from a script. "I'm calling to ask for your vote for Senate candidate Sharron Angle in the general election on Tuesday, November 2nd."

It's no mistake that Gagnon is calling people in Nevada rather than Oregon, where the Republican Senate nominee isn't given much of a chance. Encouraged by national tea party groups, she and other activists are dialing long-distance to try to influence the nation's most competitive congressional contests.

With mailing lists numbering in the hundreds of thousands and Internet-based call programs that do everything but read the script, national tea party organizations are trying to take advantage of the movement's vast but decentralized grass-roots muscle.

The fact that thousands are willing to participate shows an evolution among a part of the tea party movement into a more traditional kind of political force, not just a rebel cause able to turn out a crowd for a rally.

FreedomWorks, which claims 2,100 registered callers nationwide, is just one group with a phone-from-home program. The Sacramento-based Tea Party Express helped sway primary elections in Alaska, Delaware and Nevada by placing tens of thousands of calls to those states, and organizers for Americans for Prosperity, headquartered in Arlington, say 10,000 volunteers are making calls through the program - 400 of whom are in Oregon.

The efforts are designed to be a conservative counterweight to MoveOn.org and other liberal organizations that used these sorts of tactics to great effect in 2006 and 2008. Those groups are at it again this year, with Organizing for America launching a revamped online calling tool last week to coincide with President Obama's rallies nationwide.

The Internet-based software the tea party groups provide makes calling easy: Register as a volunteer, log in, and the program calls your phone number to connect you. Click again and your phone calls a voter's home. Read the script on the screen, click again and the call is disconnected. Click again and the next call is underway.

All the while, the system is logging valuable information for the national groups: who's still undecided, which numbers are good, who's home and who's not.

Calling all around the country on behalf of politicians she has never met is not exactly something Gagnon expected to do. But she's a mother and she's worried that no matter how well she raises her kids, it won't make much difference if things don't improve.

"I've been concerned about the direction our country's going starting back when President Bush was in office," said Gagnon, who is active with the Oregon Tea Party and the Oregon 912 Project and whose husband, Jason, lost his job in February as an information-technology project manager.

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