RICHMOND — Dozens of President Trump's 2016 campaign aides are working to get disaffected blue-collar rural Virginians to vote in the Nov. 7 governor's race — an effort seen as a trial run for a national push in next year's congressional midterms.
Look Ahead America is targeting 12,000 registered voters who have not been to the polls since 2009, the last year Republicans won statewide elections in purple Virginia.
The group is conservative but officially nonpartisan, so it cannot directly urge voters to choose Republican Ed Gillespie over Democrat Ralph Northam, the state's lieutenant governor.
But the organization is reaching out to the same types of voters who were widely credited with putting Trump in the White House, which its website describes as "rural and blue-collar patriotic Americans who are disaffected and disenfranchised from the nation's corridors of power."
Co-founder Matt Braynard stressed that Look Ahead is not reaching out to Trump voters but people who sat out the 2016 election and many others before that.
"Part of it is just a high level of cynicism that voting does not matter," said Braynard, one of two former Trump campaign data directors who started the group. "We are trying to correct that."
Look Ahead is reaching out to those voters through direct mail, phone calls, robo-calls, email, social media and old-fashioned door-knocking.
The group's efforts could help Gillespie if it gets more conservatives to the polls. Some religious conservatives and fans of Trump have been skeptical of Gillespie, a GOP establishment figure who has been a Republican National Committee chairman, Washington lobbyist and counselor to President George W. Bush.
Because the group operates independently of the campaign, Gillespie could reap the benefit of higher conservative turnout while keeping Trump at arm's length — a posture intended to help him with moderates and independents in a state where the president's approval ratings are dismal.
Look Ahead, created by 34 Trump field workers and state directors, got working in Virginia about two weeks ago — too late to sign up new voters ahead of the state's Oct. 16 registration deadline.
Organizers had hoped to get an earlier start, telling the New York Times in August that they expected to raise $800,000 and begin operations in Virginia in time to register voters.
But raising money was tougher than expected, so the group did not get started until recently, with what Braynard called a "limited budget." Politico first reported that the group's efforts in the state were underway.
"I'll admit some of the donors we were counting on did not materialize," said Braynard, who said he will not disclose how much has been raised before filing deadlines. The group is organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which allows it to keep donors private.
"So far we're not the tool of any billionaires," he said.
Despite the late start, organizers believe they can play an important role by nudging inactive voters to the polls, particularly because campaigns tend to focus their turnout efforts on "high propensity" voters.
"We're going to pester them as best we can into voting," Braynard said. He was data director for the Trump campaign but left in March 2016, handing that job off to Witold Chrabaszcz, co-founder of Look Ahead.
"There's a segment of the population that doesn't vote at all," Chrabaszcz said. "Traditionally, political organizations tend to go after people who are reliable voters."
That tends to create "a vicious cycle," he added, noting that campaigns tend to ignore people who do not have a history of voting, making those people feel even more alienated and less likely to vote. "We're trying to break that vicious cycle."
Look Ahead plans to deploy about 20 people as poll watchers — certified by their respective counties as third-party observers — to ensure "ballot box integrity," Braynard said. Civil libertarians have sometimes criticized monitoring as a voter-intimidation tactic.
"I'm very concerned about the message that it sends and the story line it perpetuates — trying to tell Virginians we can't trust the outcome at the ballot box," said Anna Scholl, executive director of the liberal organization Progress Virginia.
Braynard said the organization will follow the state's "very strict rules" for nonpartisan election observers, "including the requirement to get preapproval from county boards."
"It's in every citizen's best interest that organizations observing elections, regardless of ideology, can agree it was a fair fight," he said.
Look Ahead takes a conservative stance on issues such as "sanctuary cities," illegal immigration, refugee resettlements and gun rights.
"We're trying to be the ACORN of the right," he said, referring to the liberal community organizing group that collapsed in 2010 in the aftermath of several scandals. "We're not telling anybody who to vote against or whom to vote for, just telling them these are the issues at stake and their vote matters."
Donald P. Green, a Columbia University political science professor who has researched voting behavior, plans to evaluate the group's work to determine if it increases turnout.
"I conduct these kinds of evaluations on the right, and the left and the center," said Green, co-author of "Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout."
"The idea of mobilizing low-propensity voters is quite interesting," Green said. "They're moving into essentially a vacant space in the world of campaign activity. The typical campaign ignores voters who show repeatedly that they're unlikely to come out to vote."
The group has hired the nonpartisan Seattle-based data company L2 to locate these voters through voting histories and data on income, education and consumer purchases. If the voter has used a credit card to buy a gun, for example, that would suggest support for gun rights, said Paul Westcott, L2 vice president.
"It's turning out individuals who are likely to care about certain issues and using a strategy for finding those disaffected voters," Westcott said.