GREENWOOD, Ind. — The midterm elections are months away, yet on a rainy Saturday morning here recently, Republican activists in campaign T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats gathered for a task usually undertaken closer to Election Day: preparing to get out the vote.
Among those present was Renee Raber, 28, a stay-at-home mom and Republican activist. She said she was eager to see the party leverage support for President Trump and the GOP tax law to help defeat Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) this fall.
“I have a lot of friends with small businesses in the community, and they already see what tax reform is doing for them and their families,” Raber said. “I think they see it as one of President Trump’s main promises, and he got it done.”
The gathering, sponsored by the Republican National Committee, was relatively small, drawing about 35 party stalwarts like Raber to a classroom at a local private Christian university last month. It was part of a nationwide effort by right-leaning groups to start organizing early for the midterm elections. On that Saturday alone, some 1,900 Republican activists participated in similar events across the country, party officials said.
The RNC and other conservative groups are already recruiting volunteers, accumulating voter data and figuring out which issues — whether immigration, taxes or opioids — galvanize voters in different regions.
The purpose of these early efforts is to counter some of the advantages enjoyed by Democrats, who are expected to benefit this fall from anti-Trump sentiment and voters’ historical tendency to support the party out of power in the midterms, particularly in House races.
The efforts are bolstered in part by strong fundraising by Republican groups that have benefited from an influx of small-dollar donations.
The RNC, for example, has received a flood of contributions under $200 from Trump’s galvanized base, and these payments make up nearly half of its $161 million haul so far this cycle.
“The low-dollar donors are the fuel for the vehicle we’re building,” RNC political director Juston Johnson said. “The fact that you’re seeing the record fundraising every month tells you there’s enthusiasm among the Republicans. That is what drives our engine.”
Another group, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), which is backed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), has raised more than $40 million this cycle, a leap from the $12.6 million it raised during the entire 2014 midterms, Federal Election Commission records show. The group has booked $48 million in TV and digital ad reservations, signaling an early and aggressive midterm push.
“The fact that they’re organizing now for the big push later in the year is actually a big deal,” said Michael Cohen, director of the political management program at George Washington University. “They’re announcing it earlier, which means they’re putting their competitors on notice. And since they announced it, they can fundraise for it and fully fund it.”
One advantage for Democrats this election is their voters are energized, fueled by victories in some recent special elections, party strategists say.
They, too, are trying to capitalize on their strengths by putting an early emphasis on voter-oriented efforts. There is a particular focus on millennials, minorities and rural communities and on stepping up support for state-level party organizations, Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.
“What we learned in 2017 and in early 2018 is that when Democrats make meaningful, early investments in organizing and community engagement, we can win anywhere,” Singh said.
The DNC is still recovering from the 2016 elections and lags far behind the RNC in fundraising. Groups on the left also are less unified, with scattered “resistance” organizations working independently of the DNC.
“We’re going to get outspent. But . . . it’s also true that you don’t need as much money when you have inherent enthusiasm,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC.
The RNC says its members are also energized. Its permanent field program, which began in 2013, now spans more than two dozen states and 300 permanent staffers, a number that is expected to grow by 200 by the summer.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, which launched voter outreach campaigns in targeted districts in February 2017, now has field offices in 31 House districts in 19 states and plans to expand to nearly 40 districts this year.
Super PACs usually focus on ad campaigns, but the CLF is adding a voter outreach component to its work for this election, a new strategy under Corry Bliss, who was named executive director in December 2016.
The CLF’s data team and thousands of volunteers work to identify the local issues that are most important to about 50,000 swing Republican voters in closely contested House districts.
Then they target those voters through calls, house visits and advertisements focused on what their Republican congressmen are doing on the issues they care most about — even if it is something obscure, like water issues affecting farmers.
“CLF highlights different issues in every one of the 31 districts where we have field offices, and we use that data to hyper-target voters,” Bliss said.
Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch and their network of libertarian-leaning donors, is not always a reliable partner of the GOP establishment. The network notably has bucked congressional Republicans on immigration.
On many issues, including the new tax law, AFP aligns with mainstream GOP groups.
AFP, which is known for its grass-roots operation, has sought to establish a more permanent ground-level presence than other groups.
Tim Phillips, president of AFP, compared short-lived, last-minute organizing efforts with a spring snowstorm. “It evaporates very quickly,” he said. “Our goal is to be there for the long term to build genuine roots and connections in communities.”
Activists with AFP work year-round in 36 states to advance the network’s agenda on local, state and federal policy priorities, including promoting right-to-work laws in Kentucky and opposing a transit tax referendum in Tennessee.
On a weekday afternoon last month, AFP staff members and volunteers canvassed near Miami’s Little Havana to survey voters about the new tax law. They logged answers on an iPad app that updated the group’s database instantaneously.
Not everyone opened their doors, but Andrea Romero, a 35-year-old real estate developer, did. Romero, who has lived in Miami for 14 years, answered questions about the economy and the tax law and offered the field staffers water as they left her stoop. She said she welcomed their visit and wanted to see more activists engaging community members on local issues.
“I think it’s great. I think we need more of it here in Miami, especially,” Romero said. “The lack of engagement with government and community, it could really use a little pick-me-up.”