WASHINGTON –- The story of how Democrats began to build a professional, data-driven model for state legislature campaigns began one week before last fall's elections, when a group of Democratic operatives met with Terry McAuliffe, the party's candidate for Virginia governor, inside his home in Washington's Northern Virginia suburbs.
McAuliffe was set to host a fundraiser later that afternoon at the house. But before that event, he gathered Robby Mook, his campaign manager; Levar Stoney, Mook's deputy; Michael Halle, the field specialist working as a liaison between the campaign and the state party; and state Sen. Dick Saslaw, leader of the Senate Democrats, in a room off his back office.
Though the outcome of the governor's race was still in doubt, the operatives wanted to start planning for post-election scenarios. They presented a plan to McAuliffe for him to begin raising money after the election, if he were to win, in case there were special elections that needed resources. The candidate signed off on it.
McAuliffe won the election a week later. And soon after that -– while overseeing the transition for his new administration -– he went to work making phone calls and holding meetings with potential donors to ask for more money. Even for a man known as "the Macker," whose main role in the party for years was that of fundraiser, the job of bleeding donors for more after already raising $40 million in the general election was no easy task.
"There was a lot of donor fatigue," Halle said. Not to mention, McAuliffe wanted to raise $500,000 and spend it on two state Senate special elections -- not exactly the type of contests that get donors excited. But Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO kicked in money, and McAuliffe was able to raise the rest from others.
The stakes were high. Democrats had to hold both seats if they wanted to take control of the state Senate. Doing so would provide the new governor, McAuliffe, with a big boost in his attempt to get key parts of his agenda through the legislature, including an expansion of Medicaid.
Armed with the fresh cash, McAuliffe's campaign outfitted the two state Senate campaigns with first-rate data analytics models as cutting edge as the ones used by McAuliffe in his campaign for governor, and by President Barack Obama's reelection campaign in 2012. The models provided the Democrats with hyper-specific projections of which voters in their districts were most likely to be supporters, and more importantly, who was most likely to vote.
The special election in District 6, which covers a portion of Norfolk and all of Virginia's Eastern Shore, was called in mid-November to fill the seat vacated by Ralph Northam, who won the lieutenant governorship. In District 33, the special election was called even later, just before Christmas, once the senator who had filled the seat, Mark Herring, was declared the winner in the state attorney general's race. In both cases, there were no previous special elections for state Senate that the campaigns could use to predict which voters might be most likely to show up at polls.
The voter data armed the Democratic candidates, Jennifer Wexton in Leesburg's District 33, and Lynwood Lewis Jr. in District 6, with the ability to target their phone calls, door knocks, direct mail, and emails to the right people, saving time and money.
"A non-traditional calendar with no history of special elections, you just don't know who's going to turn out," an operative involved in the District 6 race said. "You wonder, what's going to be the fatigue factor? Who does it make sense for us to talk to? You could potentially waste a lot of resources going after people who have no chance of voting.
"Some of it is common sense, but if you get creative with the analytics, you can look at things like in-home effects. If you have somebody who is a presidential and midterm voter, skipped '09, but voted in '08, '10 and '12, but you look and there's a spouse who does stand a chance of coming out in the special, there's a chance that the one person in the house could influence the other," said the operative, who asked that he not be identified because he is now working on a different campaign with another Democratic candidate. "So if you're figuring out where to vote on doors, you'd rather knock on that one."
But without a ground game, that information was limited in value. So the Virginia Democratic Party also used the money McAuliffe had raised to hire 20 paid field organizers in each race. They were overseen by two regional field directors, who both reported to a field director working with Halle at the state party and the campaign managers for the two campaigns.
"We brought on the paid staff who had been working there for the governor's race to reactivate the trusted volunteers," said Joel Emerson, the field director for Wexton's campaign in District 33. "We brought on folks who had already contacted volunteers and voters, made sure they got in touch with their networks and turned them on. It was almost like a continuation of the campaign for a lot of volunteers."
Wexton's operation knocked on more than 100,000 doors in one month, Emerson said, and the Democrat comfortably defeated her Republican opponent and an independent candidate, with 11,431 votes to Republican John Whitbeck's 8,133.
In District 6, which was not certified until a week after Wexton's victory because of a three-week recount, Lewis won by just 11 votes over Republican Wayne Coleman, 10,203 to 10,192. McAuliffe's investment had been crucial.
The Virginia legislature is still debating the governor's Medicaid proposal, but the model pioneered in the two special elections this year "says something about what he's going to do in races in 2014 and going forward," said Halle, who remains involved in Virginia state politics as Democrats continue to refine their voter database with information from the most recent contests and look to take the lessons learned into the next round of state legislature elections.
More broadly, Halle said, " the argument of whether these things are transferrable pretty clearly is yes." That's a response to the talking point that Republicans have been throwing around since the 2012 presidential election, in which they were badly beaten in almost every facet of how to run a modern, data-driven, field-heavy campaign.
The GOP has said that Democrats won't be able to replicate what the Obama campaign did in 2012 because that was a one-time phenomenon that energized huge networks of volunteers in key states, not to mention oceans of cash, on the basis of a unique candidate.
Virginia, twice now, has proven that argument wrong. McAuliffe raised the money he needed last year, and his campaign knew what the margin of victory was likely to be for weeks leading up to the election, even as the GOP pollsters thought their candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, was further behind than he was. That meant Republicans didn't come in with cash at the end of the race to try to move the needle for their guy. McAuliffe's campaign also leveraged an extensive field operation to turn out the voters it needed, using state-of-the-art analytics provided by former members of the Obama campaign, who now run a company designed to export voter models and other forms of measurable data to statewide and local candidates.
The state Senate special elections proved that with the right planning, Democrats can take their campaign model from the national level, to the statewide level, and all the way down to the level of a state legislature race. That should set off alarm bells for the GOP.
CORRECTION: Joel Emerson, field director for Jennifer Wexton's campaign in District 33, was wrongly identified as campaign manager in an earlier version.