WASHINGTON – Republicans' success at turning out voters in the 2002 midterm election means the GOP will make the aggressive voter turnout strategy borrowed from Democrats and organized labor an essential part of its campaigns.
Republicans get a chance to test these skills Saturday in Louisiana's Senate runoff between Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell.
"Quite probably it has changed the way Republicans get out their vote forever,'' Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said of the success of the GOP's "72-hour task force.''
Factors this year such as President Bush's popularity and national security issues were as important as the new grass-roots approach.
In the past, Republicans relied more heavily on television advertising and direct mail, financed by their big advantage in campaign money.
The enlisting of local volunteers was heavily emphasized in the GOP program this year. Republicans say they enlisted hundreds of thousands of volunteers from within the states and communities where competitive races were held to knock on doors, talk with voters and help with phone banks.
The voter turnout effort headed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas also relied heavily on Republican activists and workers within the same states as the competitive House races.
They sent about 1,500 people from Washington who mostly worked behind the scenes organizing from campaign headquarters.
Democrats, led by the AFL-CIO, had developed a more aggressive voter turnout effort in the mid- to late-1990s. They often could close a race by several percentage points or overtake Republican candidates who had a slight lead just before the election.
In 2002, the Colorado Republicans sent 1,300 volunteers into neighborhoods in the three days before Nov. 5, visiting an estimated 300,000 homes of Republican-leaning Coloradans. They left sample ballots, customized to the voters' neighborhoods, and information on the locations of polling places. During the summer and fall, they also talked with people in their neighborhoods.
Jack Stansbery, who directed the Colorado effort, said the intensive voter turnout effort can have an impact up to 4 percentage points, crucial in a close race like Colorado's 7th Congressional District election between Republican Bob Beauprez and Democrat Mike Feeley.
Beauprez apparently got 122 more votes, but a recount was wrapping up. Republican incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard defeated Democrat Tom Strickland by a 51-46 margin.
"The margin of victory in some of these races proved to a lot of our volunteers that their help in the get-out-the-vote efforts is crucial,'' Stansbery said. "This will make it easier to recruit help in the future.''
Nowhere was the GOP turnout effort more impressive than in Georgia, where Republican state Chairman Ralph Reed helped organize the effort to defeat Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Sen. Max Cleland.
"Clearly President Bush and the White House political team created an overarching national political environment that was extremely helpful to all our candidates,'' Reed said. "There was a wind at our backs.''
But Reed said the GOP's upper hand on voter turnout was unlikely to be permanent.
"I don't think either party is likely to master this or any other tactic for long unchallenged.''
Donna Brazile, a Democratic specialist at voter turnout, especially turnout of black voters, said the GOP's effort to beat Democrats at their own game proved successful.
"They had better targeting, they were successful at nationalizing the election and better at grabbing the moderate independents," said Brazile, chair of Democratic National Committee's voting rights institute. "The Democratic Party will have to come up with a new model in 2004."
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, will need to have that new Democratic strategy in place by 2003, when he faces re-election. Democratic candidates for governor had more success than Democrats generally, he said.
"People are looking for capable, competent leadership that understands state priorities," Musgrove said.
He said people are much more interested in a governor's plan to help a state than in national political trends.
In November, Republicans "were able to turn out their vote because they did a good job of identifying it, and they set the terms of debate for this election," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "Who won and lost in the organizing was a function of who set an agenda and who did not."