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Tough turf lessons: Assessing the GOP, Democratic ground games in Wisconsin

By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press

Seven months ago, as Wisconsin Republicans looked ahead to the upcoming presidential election, they focused on the state’s nonpartisan race for the state Supreme Court as a test run of sorts.

They figured out the most effective way to identify and register Republicans with a low likelihood of voting and persuade independents to get to the polls. They analyzed where and when to put resources into the field. They looked at how best to spend on mailings and phone calls.

“When we looked at the Supreme Court race, it was an opportunity for us to fine-tune our operation,” said Mark Morgan, state director for the Republican National Committee.

Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley won by more than 95,000 votes in April.

In November, Republican Donald Trump eked out a much tighter victory — just over 27,000 votes — against Hillary Clinton.

Republicans, both nationally and in Wisconsin, say the difference-maker for Trump was the ground game, which they built for more than a decade, first with a series of recall elections in 2011 and 2012 and honed with the Supreme Court race.

The Wisconsin GOP has a reputation as one of the best state party operations because of it, said Luke Martz, a Republican consultant who worked in eight states.

“They run a very tight ship,” said Martz, who was Bradley’s campaign manager and noted that though that race benefited from the party’s work, there was no coordination. “They know what they’re doing. They know how to win races.”

While Republicans revel in victory, Democrats are trying to chart a path forward as they look ahead to 2018, when they’ll have to defend U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s seat and attempt to win back the governor’s office.

The state spokeswoman from Clinton talked up Democrats’ efforts despite November’s outcome.

“Democrats up and down the ticket were supported by a robust organizing operation and an incredible volunteer network across Wisconsin,” said Gillian Drummond, who also is a longtime Wisconsin Democratic operative. “From phone banks in small towns to knocking doors in cities and organizing events everywhere in between, the Democratic operation was second to none.”

The Republican ground game can’t be credited for all of their success.

Clinton underperformed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals in Democratic counties. Key voters — young people, women, African-Americans and Hispanics — did not turn out in the numbers she needed to win.

Plus, Democrats had to raise money without any visits from Clinton or the Obamas — the first presidential election since 1972 when one of the major party candidates skipped the state.

Still, the Republican track record in Wisconsin since 2010 shows:

  • Scott Walker winning three elections, including a recall.
  • Johnson twice, the second in a presidential year.
  • Republicans flipping control of the Legislature.

They now have their largest Senate majority since 1971 and their biggest in the Assembly since 1957.

Republicans shifted their strategy in 2004 after party leaders realized they couldn’t win elections just through television advertising alone, GOP operative Mark Graul said. Republicans have invested in sophisticated data analytics to target the right voters at their homes, contacts that are more effective than phone calls, Graul said.

Republicans also instituted a “turf model” or “neighborhood team” approach that divided the state into 99 different regions.

“We didn’t leave any stone unturned,” said Juston Johnson, the national party’s regional political director for Wisconsin. “We went into communities that we haven’t necessarily been in before.”

The GOP state operation wasn’t daunted like others after the 2012 presidential election, when Obama carried Wisconsin by 7 points. It kept the infrastructure for the 2014 midterm races and increased permanent staffing and number of offices in 2015.

Ultimately, the program went from four offices and eight staffers to 40 offices with 162 paid staff and trained organizers, Morgan said.

Republicans made 4.7 million voter contacts this election cycle, including knocking on 1 million doors in the final five weeks of the race, Morgan said. In 2012, less than half that many doors were knocked on in the final five weeks.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville, provided a critical boost by funneling $1 million from his re-election fund to the state party.

Conventional wisdom among political operatives is that a solid ground game will, at best, yield up to 3 points in an election.

Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won by 3.4 points.

“The early investments paid off,” Morgan said. “The infrastructure is second to none.”