POLITICS
09/21/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Senate Democrats Reveal Not-So-Secret Weapon In Campaign To Stay In Control

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WASHINGTON -- By all rights, Democrats in the U.S. Senate should be measuring drapes for smaller offices as they head home for an election season that many analysts predict will hand control of the upper chamber to Republicans.

But the man most directly in charge of salvaging a grim year for Democrats told HuffPost in an interview this week that there are a couple of not-so-secret but underappreciated reasons why there's an even chance the Senate will remain in Democratic hands.

"The reality is, we are dealing probably with the worst map in at least a generation," said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

But Cecil explained his reasons for optimism, starting with the elements of 2014's unusually fluid political atmosphere that he and his outfit can actually affect: The ground game in key states, along with the ad and infrastructure spending to back it up.

"I don’t worry about the things I can control. I worry about the things that you can't -- just the general environment," Cecil said. "Constantly thinking about what we need to do to prepare ourselves for a change in environment, what do we need to do to prepare ourselves for a change in the president’s numbers in these states -– those are the things that we stay more focused on."

That constant thinking has spawned an unprecedented effort in a midterm election year, called the Bannock Street Project after the location of Bennet's 2010 campaign office. It's a $60 million investment in the idea that good data can produce more efficient politics that, in turn, gets complacent Democrats to the polls and inactive voters engaged.

For the first time this campaign season, Cecil revealed what this theory means in practical terms. To date, the DSCC has built a political army of 51,000 volunteers who have taken campaign action -- "people that have actually made phone calls, registered voters, knocked on doors." That includes 9,966 volunteers in North Carolina, 2,688 in Alaska, 3,965 in Arkansas, 6,218 in Iowa, an estimated 6,000 in Georgia, 5,500 in Colorado, 3,250 in Kentucky, and 3,700 in New Hampshire.

The total is likely to reach 61,000 by the election. In addition, the DSCC expects to have 4,000 paid staffers by November, according to Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter.

Without seeing the volunteers and staffers in action, it's difficult to tell the tangible effects of such an investment. But the magnitude is easy to understand when placed in historical context.

"If you just look at what we invested in 2010, we are spending more money in North Carolina and Alaska [this cycle] than we invested in every single state in 2010 combined," Cecil said. "The Colorado program now makes the Colorado program that we ran in 2010 [a program that earned accolades for its get-out-the-vote prowess] look J.V. They just have more offices, more infrastructure, more staff, more volunteers at this point by far than what we had in 2010."

In an election year where the president's popularity ratings are abysmal and the key races are in Republican-leaning states, a comprehensive ground game may be the one trump card Democrats have. It's not just that the DSCC is unleashing an unprecedented number of volunteers. It's the surgical method they're using. Cecil noted committee workers have leaned on members of the Congressional Black Caucus to help with surrogate operations in predominantly African-American areas, run Native American outreach programs in Alaska and parts of Colorado, used digital advertising to reach minority populations, and buffed up legal resources to help with voter registration and voter ID law efforts.

"We are pretty obsessive about making sure we are doing everything we can," said Cecil. "We send our field staff out to states the minute we see them dropping off of goals or seeing their flight rate increase -- the percentage of volunteers who say they will volunteer and then don’t come. We work on how to reduce those rates.

"Data is not the decider in the election," he added. "Data just gives us the tools to know if we are doing a good job measuring against the goals we have set."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee's top spokesman, Brad Dayspring, didn't dispute the effort his opponents were putting into the contest. He suggested that Republicans, whose ground game suffered badly in 2012, would be much improved this year.

“One rare consistent this cycle is that Guy Cecil’s name is atop every rumored Hillary ’16 staff list, so we are very cognizant of how well regarded he is," Dayspring said, referring to rumors that Cecil would be a top choice to run a new presidential bid by Hillary Clinton. "Guy and his team at the DSCC have their plans, we have ours, and we’ll see who wins on Election Day.”

While data may fuel the DSCC's operation, there's another big reason why Cecil said he believes Democrats have a chance to hold the Senate. Even with President Barack Obama's approval ratings in the tank, Cecil has the benefit of running against politicians even more loathed by the public -- Republicans.

"We are dealing with red states where the president is unpopular, but the Republican Party is also pretty unpopular," Cecil said.

And it's not just the GOP generally. The specific candidates who have taken up the party's banner are not exactly covered in glory, Cecil argued.

"I think if you look at it, despite the public relations job that they have done about how great their candidates are, the fact of the matter is, when you look at candidates, [there is] Tom Cotton, who has not exactly met expectations, or Terri Lynn Land, who won’t talk to the press, won’t talk to voters, won’t debate, or Monica Wehby in Oregon, who they talk less and less about as time goes on," Cecil said.

"I think the reality is that as much as we can make it about the two candidates, and as much as we can make it about their respective states … I think the better chance we have at being successful," he said.

Of course, with just seven weeks until Election Day, the Bannock Street Project has already suffered some losses that temper Democrats' optimism.

For instance, in Montana and West Virginia -- two states that were part of the effort -- Democrats are all but out of the hunt. They lost their candidate in Montana -- Sen. John Walsh -- to a plagiarism scandal, and West Virginia contender Natalie Tennant has failed to gain traction.

Even in the project's birth state of Colorado, where Democrats had been confident, Sen. Mark Udall is facing a neck-and-neck challenge from GOP Rep. Cory Gardner. One of the project's marquee contests -- the bid by Alison Lundergan Grimes to knock off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky -- has faded of late.

Cecil is somewhat philosophical about the tough polls in other red states where Democratic incumbents are in difficult spots. Though the DSCC is devoting historic resources to ginning up the vote this year, Cecil, at this juncture, is happy just to be competitive.

"We are dealing with all the challenges of the midterm election that normally are more challenging for us in terms of turnout. We are dealing with Republican states where the president is unpopular," Cecil said. "And yet, despite all of that, people think that at the very worst, we have at least a fighting shot to hold the majority."

CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to specify the timeline for the DSCC's hiring of 4,000 paid staffers.

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