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Dawn Teo

Dawn Teo

Posted: July 31, 2009 02:51 PM

As members of Congress head home for an August recess, Barack Obama's former campaign arm, Organizing for America (OFA), is gearing up to target Blue Dog districts with old-fashioned, election-style, on-the-ground operations.

OFA has been organizing canvasses and phone banks since early spring, but their strategy has changed dramatically during the last couple of weeks, becoming more pointed: they are organizing canvassing drives and phone banks that specifically target the districts of the Blue Dog Democrats who have been reluctant to support Obama's health care reform. Volunteers are organizing and manning phone banks to call Blue Dogs in other districts or states, and some volunteers are even driving into Blue Dog districts to lend a hand.

Last week, invitations went out to supporters in districts where support for or against Obama's health care reform is already certain. "We're changing the focus of our phone bank this weekend," one email and Facebook message from Nevada said. "We'll be calling the constituents of California Blue Dog Dems in both the House and Senate."

OFA volunteers are not calling to complain about the Blue Dogs, though. They're asking constituents to pick up the phone and call the Blue Dogs that represent them and tell them they support Obama's health care reform initiative. They're targeting constituents of Blue Dogs who have supported Obama in the past or indicated that they support health care reform, and they are asking them to mobilize.

Shasta McManus of Tucson, Arizona has been canvassing and phone banking for OFA in Rep. Gabriel Giffords's (D-AZ) district and plans to continue throughout the Congressional recess. McManus says the focus of OFA efforts in Giffords' district is entirely positive, "Gabby is awesome, we love her. But the other side is not going to stop, so we can't either. This is about gathering support, not opposition."

As Democrats return home to their constituents for recess, some are worried that not having a specific bill could make it more difficult for Democratic members of Congress to defend the health care reform initiative. But most Blue Dogs seemed to prefer not having a bill. They want the voters in their districts to see that the process is deliberative, not rushed. Meanwhile, OFA volunteers across the country say it is their job to make sure every Democratic member of Congress has the support they need at home to say yes to health care reform.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR), the key player in delaying the bill until after recess said, "We were able to reach an agreement that ensures that every member of Congress will have the entire month of August and the first week in September to read the bill and to visit with their constituents about it."

Most volunteers and local-level OFA staff I tried to speak with declined to speak to the press, though volunteers did express concern that targeting Blue Dog districts could be seen as an attack, something OFA volunteers consistently say they are not doing. "This is a support role, not an attack role," one OFA volunteer in a red state told me. "We are laying a foundation of support for Blue Dogs to stand on."

Both political parties are also targeting Blue Dog districts with dueling town halls, petition drives, phone calls, and even high priced television ads. The Republican National Committee is spending millions on attack ads in Blue Dog districts. OFA announced last week that it would be expanding its health care ads in Blue Dog districts. The Democratic ads are aimed not at attacking Blue Dogs, but rather at drumming up support for health care reform.

The GOPs' Free Our Health Care Now petition is running almost neck-and-neck with OFA's Health Care Pledge. Both have reportedly topped 1 million signatories.

OFA is not just relying on volunteers. They have staffers in all 50 states, focusing heavily on states like Arizona, Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina that performed surprisingly well in 2008. Efforts in some states, like North Carolina, are reaching a fever pitch as groups on both sides ramp up operations in ways that resemble the battleground state election campaigns from eight months ago.

OFA is even picking up new volunteers who did not get involved during the election but are passionate about health care reform. Ann from Chapel Hill, North Carolina says that she's never been politically active and only votes sporadically in elections, but she got involved in OFA health care organizing because a friend involved in OFA in another state sent her an email asking her to sign the OFA health care pledge. She signed the pledge and is going to participate in phone banking this weekend -- her first-ever political participation.

The OFA effort in North Carolina is just getting started, but in Arizona, OFA is up and running and has phone banks nearly every evening. On the weekends, they have street teams and door-to-door canvassing -- in 115 degree weather -- in addition to the phone banks, and these efforts have already paid off. Giffords, a representative who is being targeted by both OFA and the RNC, wrote an op-ed this week, Health Care Reform Is Our Moon Shot, that declared our current health care system a failure and proclaimed that "providing Americans with health care that gives them lifetime security and peace of mind must be America's next great accomplishment."

That both sides are ramping up to target Blue Dog districts is nothing surprising or new, but on-the-ground, campaign-style operations outside of an election cycle is an unusual testament to Obama's community organizing background. Phone bank volunteers who live far outside of Blue Dog districts are calling en masse to these targeted districts and asking supporters there not just to call their member of Congress but also to volunteer by going door-to-door or making calls to ask others in their district to do the same. Canvassers who live near a Blue Dog district are being asked to drive into the targeted district for door-knocking operations.

On-the-ground organizing may also have more far-reaching effects than just strengthening the President's position on health care. Every person OFA reaches on the phone today is a potential supporter in 2010 and 2012. Every door knocked or volunteer recruited today is a potential recruit in 2010 or 2012. Old-fashioned machine politics may be over, but in a time when the election cycle never sleeps, yearlong organizing in the election off-season is looking like the political mechanics of the future.

 

Follow Dawn Teo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dawnteo