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Democrats scramble to boost voter turnout

Top Democrats are increasingly concerned that they lack an effective plan to turn out voters this fall, creating tension among party leaders and prompting House Democrats to launch a fundraising campaign aimed exclusively at mobilizing Democratic partisans.
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Top Democrats are increasingly concerned that they lack an effective plan to turn out voters this fall, creating tension among party leaders and prompting House Democrats to launch a fundraising campaign aimed exclusively at mobilizing Democratic partisans.

At a meeting last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) criticized Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for not spending enough party resources on get-out-the-vote efforts in the most competitive House and Senate races, according to congressional aides who were briefed on the exchange. Pelosi -- echoing a complaint common among Democratic lawmakers and operatives -- has warned privately that Democrats are at risk of going into the November midterm elections with a voter-mobilization plan that is underfunded and inferior to the proven turnout machine run by national Republicans.

The Senate and House campaign committees are creating their own get-out-the-vote operations instead, using money that otherwise would fund television advertising and other election-year efforts. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) -- who no longer speaks to Dean because of their strategic differences -- is planning to ask lawmakers and donors to help fund a new turnout program run by House Democrats. He has recruited Michael Whouley, a specialist in Democratic turnout, to help oversee it.

"I am not waiting for anyone anymore who said they were going to" build a turnout operation, Emanuel said. "It has got to be done."

Many Democrats said that despite a favorable political climate and record-setting fundraising, the campaign to recapture the House and Senate could fall short if the organizational problems persist. "What the party really needs is to get serious about local, volunteer-based" operations, said Jack Corrigan, a longtime Democratic operative. "The last-minute, throw-money-at-it approach . . . does not really solve the fundamental failure to organize that is there. The DNC is moving in the right direction, but needs to do more, fast," he said.

Democrats consider the 2006 elections their best chance in a decade to recapture the House, with widespread unease over Iraq and with Republicans lagging in polls. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), who would become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee if Democrats picked up the 15 seats needed to regain the majority, said in an interview yesterday that he will quit Congress if the party does not capitalize on an unparalleled opportunity.

Dispute with Dean
Democrats' organizing has been slowed by a philosophical dispute between Dean, who argues that the party needs to rebuild its long-term infrastructure nationwide while trying to win back the House and Senate, and congressional Democrats, who want to use party resources for an all-out push this fall.

Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is less concerned about the Dean approach than House leaders are. "We are obviously concerned," a senior Senate Democratic strategist said, but Schumer moved ahead two months ago with a plan to fortify get-out-the-vote operations in 15 states, including targeting disgruntled Republicans. Democrats sympathetic to Dean said that Emanuel and Pelosi are trying to blame the DNC chairman in case they do not win back the House.

In a letter sent to Democrats on Monday, Dean said: "We've got a big secret . . . and it is going to help us win." He asked Democratic donors for $25 a month to fund mobilization programs nationwide. "What many people do not realize is that . . . we are turning our operation into a 50-state, get-out-the-vote effort."

But many Democrats are not convinced. "We are concerned in certain parts of the country, and that is why we want to have this insurance policy" of the DCCC effort run by Whouley, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Republicans are far more united in their approach, building on what both sides said worked well in 2002 and 2004. They are routing all turnout efforts through the Republican National Committee, which had $45 million in the bank -- four times as much as the DNC -- as of June 30.

The RNC runs a strategy known in political circles as the 72-hour program. It focuses on using phone calls, polling data and personal visits to identify would-be GOP voters and their top issues early in the cycle. The information is then fed into a database, allowing party leaders to flood them with pro-Republican messages through e-mail, regular mail and local volunteers. On Election Day, they receive a phone call or a visit to remind them to vote.

A GOP strategist involved in the effort said the RNC did a post-election review of every person it contacted, looking at how many times they were reached, which issues were discussed and whether they voted. This information was supplied to about 30 targeted states earlier this year, and RNC officials track the states to see whether they are reaching goals for adding new names and contacting old ones.

Both parties credit this program with putting Bush over the top in Ohio in 2004 by exceeding GOP turnout projections in key parts of the state. "I think the best 21st-century turnout operation was Bush-Cheney '04," said Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. But the political landscape has changed dramatically. Conservatives are less enthused about GOP lawmakers, polls show, and therefore may be less likely to vote in high numbers.

Democrats said the special election in California's 50th District in June signaled that it will take more than a favorable political environment to tip House races. In the special election to replace Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned after admitting he took millions of dollars in bribes, Democrats were unable to increase turnout and lost the race.

Compounding concerns, liberal donors such as financier George Soros, who helped fund a $100 million for a get-out-vote program in 2004, have soured on what they regard as short-term fixes offered by party leaders, several major donors said. They refused to fund efforts similar to one by Americans Coming Together, which spent more than $100 million to identify and turn out voters in 2004. ACT helped increase turnout significantly in key states, including Ohio, but donors thought most of their money was wasted because the Bush-Cheney operation did better.

Help from organized labor
This year, Democrats are relying on outside groups such as the AFL-CIO, which has budgeted $40 million for turnout efforts, and America Votes, an independent group that blossomed in 2004. Other special-interest groups representing labor, abortion rights, minority groups and other factions inside the Democratic Party are also working on turning out their own members.

At the same time, a cottage industry of voter-targeting specialists is taking root. Ken Strasma of Strategic Telemetry, for instance, is using voter, marketing and demographic data to identify new voters for 25 House and Senate candidates. "I think we have definitely caught up with, if not exceeded, Republicans in terms of technology, but getting it implemented and into the field, that's another question," he said. Strasma -- like the Service Employees International Union, and others -- draws much of his voter information from Data Warehouse, a company run by Democratic operatives Harold Ickes and Laura Quinn.

In another independent effort to improve Democrats' performance, Washington real estate developer Herb Miller and other businessmen are creating an organization to study voter values, in part through using marketing techniques. The effort will share the information with party leaders this fall, said Clinton administration official Joshua Gotbaum, who will run it.

Several Democratic lawmakers and strategists said the current overall approach is flawed because it is difficult to get groups to share information and divide assignments so that all of the key House and Senate races are covered.