CLIVE, Iowa — Denise Bubeck studied her iPad as she scoped out her voter targets in this leafy Des Moines suburb. She was armed with a carefully honed script and a pile of slickly produced door hangers, like so many seasoned field operatives who parachute into this state during election season.
But Bubeck, 52, is no temporary campaign worker. The resident of Grimes, Iowa, is part of a permanent ground force that the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is building in Iowa and across the country — a long-term effort to undercut the left’s long-standing dominance in grass-roots organizing.
“All we’re going to do is get bigger,” said Mark Lucas, an AFP regional director who oversees operations in Iowa and 10 other states. “After 2014, we’re not shutting down our offices. You’re going to see all these guys pack up the day after the election, but we’re going to stay open.”
AFP, which is expected to spend more than $125 million in the 2014 elections, plans to plow more than half its resources into expanding its ground organization, with more than 500 paid field staffers positioned in pivotal races across the country. The group, backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and other conservative donors, aims to keep its activists engaged through state legislative fights in 2015 and then harness more firepower in the 2016 elections.
“We’ve got to get to the point where we’re a deeper part of a community, and the left has done that for a lot longer, with a much bigger footprint,” said Tim Phillips, the group’s national president. “It’s about building a brand in a community. Then when the attacks come, ‘Oh, you’re just part of a Koch network or some national network,’ it doesn’t really ring true with what people are seeing.”
AFP still expects to be outmatched on the ground this year by the Democrats and their allies, such as labor unions, that are mounting major get-out-the-vote operations in top races.
As they go door to door, AFP activists are gathering information about voters that filters back to Republican campaigns, part of a new effort on the right to have many sources feed a deeply layered voter database. And although the tax-exempt group maintains that it is nonpartisan, AFP has decided to engage in direct campaign activity in key Senate races in the coming weeks — freeing its field staff to explicitly urge voters not to support Democratic candidates.
The group’s operation in Iowa illustrates how rapidly AFP is moving to try to catch up with the left.
The chapter is led by Lucas, a fresh-faced Army ranger and 32-year-old Iowa native who started the group alone in January 2012. It now has nearly three dozen paid staff members and five field offices. AFP’s Iowa team says it has reached 80,000 likely voters through door-knocking this year, the best performance of any of the state chapters.
But the most important metric, Lucas repeatedly tells his staff, is the number of new volunteers coming through the door.
“Basically, our field directors are community organizers,” he said, acknowledging that the term was a punch line among conservatives during the 2008 campaign. “People used to make fun of President Obama’s background, but community organizing works.”
The approach has drawn in longtime conservative activists such as Bubeck, a former special-education teacher who volunteered with AFP for two years before being hired as a part-time field associate this year.
“One thing they’ve really emphasized is building this relationship with people in the grass roots,” she said. “It’s a powerful thing.”
Occasionally, Bubeck said, she encounters hostility from voters when she explains that she’s with AFP. One man recently snapped at her: “I know who you are — you’re the Koch brothers!” she recalled. Bubeck said she is not ruffled by such reactions. “They’ve done positive things,” she said of the Kochs.
With such deep-pocketed patrons, the group has been able to spend millions on new technology, working to harness the sophisticated data analytics that the Obama campaign employed in 2012. That year, Lucas remembers, his AFP list directed him to doors already festooned with Obama literature, leaving him uneasy about whether he was targeting the right voters.
This year, he said, “our technology is awesome.”
A zippy iPad app pinpoints which likely voters canvassers should approach, then allows them to instantly upload information from each contact. The data is also much richer than before, operatives said, the result of a far-reaching effort this year by the Republican National Committee and conservative groups to share information from the field.
The project is being spearheaded by Data Trust, a private company that has an exclusive list-exchange agreement with the RNC. Through an application interface created by Data Trust, the party and outside groups that are its clients can access and update profiles of individual voters in real time: where they stand on issues, how they prefer to be contacted and how likely they are to go to the polls. In August, Data Trust forged a partnership with i360, a data management company that works with AFP and about a dozen other groups in the Koch-backed political network, further expanding the data pool.
“Any time we are having a conversation with voters, we want to have that information and share that with everyone on our side,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
Organizers on the left say they maintain a lead in data analytics. Catalist, a private data management firm, provides voter information for dozens of liberal groups, enriched with information from every state going back to 2006, chief executive Laura Quinn said.
But conservatives say they are catching up. Every voter contact now further refines the model, an approach that activists hope will help them better identify whom to reach and how.
After AFP activists in Iowa participated in campaigns against the Affordable Care Act and a proposed state gas-tax increase, “I was able to say, ‘Okay, these people are with us on gas tax, these people are with us on Obamacare,’ ” Lucas said. “We are constantly feeding into that system, so the data is really good.”
During a day of door-knocking last week in Clive, Bubeck gently probed voters about their impressions of Bruce Braley, the Democratic congressman locked in a hard-fought campaign to replace the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D). At one house with two American flags displayed in the front yard, Bubeck asked Cecilia Rojas, a stay-at-home mother, what she thought of the fact that Braley referred to Iowa’s longtime GOP senator, Charles E. Grassley, as a “farmer” during a private fundraiser, as well as about the congressman’s support for Obama’s health-care law and the federal stimulus package.
Rojas, a registered Republican, was not sure what to make of the farmer comment. “But if he is in agreement with the president, I don’t agree with him,” said the 42-year-old.
Bubeck nodded politely and logged the information.
A few streets over, Bubeck made a similar inquiry of Jasmina Pandur, a 28-year-old bank employee. Pandur, a registered Democrat, said she did not have strong opinions about Braley, because she had not been following the race. “Are you with his campaign?” she asked Bubeck. No, the AFP staffer responded, explaining that she was with a nonpartisan organization.
Such confusion is one of the byproducts of AFP’s efforts to steer clear of explicit political pitches. Under tax rules, it can only spend a limited amount of its annual budget on campaign activities, and those expenditures must be reported to the Federal Election Commission — the kind of disclosure that the closely held group has sought to avoid.
But recently, AFP officials decided that they need to make a direct political argument in their final field push. In the coming weeks, canvassers in states with key Senate races, such as Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina, are going to urge voters to cast ballots against the Democratic candidates, as the New York Times reported last week. The direct-mail and digital advertising in those states will have similar messages.
But the message to activists remains unchanged: Focus on the long game.
After a morning of door-knocking in Clive last week, staff members and volunteers crowded into a field office to refuel with barbecue sandwiches and cold sodas.
Standing at the front of the room, Lucas reminded them how far the Iowa team had come since early 2012, when the group consisted of him and a field director, “alone and unafraid.”
“If you think you’re having fun now, just wait until after the election, because then you’ll start to see the fear in these legislators’ eyes — ‘Oh wait, AFP’s not leaving?’ ” he said, drawing laughter from the room. “Right after the election, that’s when we really go to work.”