Targeting voters' interests in last days of races

AP News
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Posted: Oct 22, 2010 4:17 AM
Targeting voters' interests in last days of races

Military veterans who care about energy are getting door knocks from like-minded vets. Gun owners are getting mail and personal appeals from the NRA. Women who support abortion rights are getting phone calls from women who feel the same.

Interest groups from across the political spectrum are spending millions to target ultra-specific messages to voters in the final days of congressional campaigns in efforts to turn out key groups that could sway tight races from California to New Hampshire.

Armed with carefully tailored lists of which voters are sympathetic, these organizations are hoping to transform their top issues into deciding factors in close contests. They hope to cut through the near-universal worries about the economy and job losses that have defined this year's campaign and appeal to people on a single topic that could motivate them to keep _ or fire_ their representatives.

Their success or failure could go a long way toward determining whether Republicans succeed in their push to take Congress, a drive that will require them to win dozens of close races. The GOP, its candidates leading in many such contests, has a clear chance at scoring the 40-seat gain it would need to control the House and longer-shot hopes of winning the 10 seats that would give it a Senate majority.

In Pennsylvania, environmentalists are partnering with a veterans group to talk to voters they believe can be persuaded to back Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak in his tough Senate race against former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey. Their message: Sestak supports clean energy initiatives that bolster national security by helping free the nation from its dependence on foreign oil.

The League of Conservation Voters has teamed with the veterans group VoteVets on the effort, designed to boost the campaigns of Sestak _ a retired Navy admiral _ and two Iraq veterans, state Sen. Bryan Lentz and Rep. Patrick Murphy, battling to hold off GOP challenges.

Staff and volunteers from the same environmental group make a different argument when they talk to voters in places like Nevada and Colorado, where they often knock on doors armed with anecdotes about clean-energy companies that are growing and hiring thanks to projects funded by the stimulus bill.

"Elections are about voters more than they are actually about the candidates, so talking to voters about their concerns and the issues that are important to them is more important than kind of running your own agenda. It's about being where they are, not where you are," said Tony Massaro, the political director of the League of Conservation Voters. "It's being smart and knowing who we want to talk to."

The group has already spent nearly double what it did in the 2006 midterm elections _ $3 million so far _ on TV advertising, mail, canvassing and other activities in seven Senate races and 11 competitive House contests. Many of them feature Democrats who voted for legislation to curb carbon emissions, which Republicans have denounced as a job-killing "energy tax."

Foes and supporters of abortion rights also have stepped up their targeted activities this year.

The Susan B. Anthony List is sending mail this week to more than 2 million abortion foes in 42 competitive congressional districts where Democrats are in peril, urging votes to fire their representatives for their records on abortion. The pamphlets equate a vote for the health care law with support for taxpayer-financed abortion.

The law walled off federal funds from being used for the procedure, and an executive order signed by President Barack Obama just before it passed reaffirmed existing prohibitions on government-financed abortion, but anti-abortion activists argue that neither would actually prevent tax money from being used.

The group, which is also running TV and radio ads in key contests including Senate races in California, Nevada and New Hampshire, is aiming to spend $10 million _ its most ever and more than double what it did in the last midterm election _ reaching out to anti-abortion voters by Election Day, said Kerry Brown, a spokeswoman.

On the other side, the pro-abortion rights political group EMILY's List, devoted to electing Democratic women, deployed hundreds of female volunteers this week to cold-call women in California who might be considering staying home from the polls next month to urge them to vote for Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The callers were to "use the power of one-on-one conversations" to paint Boxer's Republican rival Carly Fiorina as essentially anti-woman because of her opposition to the health care law.

EMILY's List is also running advertisements against Fiorina during TV programs with heavily female audiences including "Access Hollywood," "Dancing with the Stars" and "Dr. Phil."

The National Rifle Association is another group meeting its intended voting bloc _ 4 million members and hundreds of thousands of nonmembers who own guns _ where they're most likely to be.

Employees and volunteers "go door-to-door, they work the gun shows _ basically hunt where the ducks are," said Chris Cox, who heads the NRA's political efforts. He says the group will spend $15 million to $20 million by Election Day contacting voters to get them to back pro-gun candidates and oust lawmakers seen as insufficiently supportive of the right to bear arms.

The NRA is paying special attention to about 40 House races and five Senate contests _ in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Colorado and Washington _ in which it says there's a clear contrast between a candidate who doesn't support gun rights and one who does. Although the organization is nonpartisan, it's backing the Republican in all those Senate races and its top 20 House contests.

Cox's voice is hoarse from speaking to gun owners during multiple hourlong tele-townhall meetings per night in which targeted voters get a briefing and usually a chance to ask questions of the NRA's endorsed candidate.

Members start receiving the group's candidate grades in the mail this week, and the NRA is encouraging them to vote based on the rankings. An NRA website lets visitors fill out and print a "personal voting card" with the names of NRA-favored candidates as a ballot-booth reminder.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the NRA's impact is vastly overstated. His group _ which has little money to spend on campaign activities _ is using e-mail to persuade gun control activists to vote against candidates that oppose weapons restrictions.

Guns, he said, "are not obviously the main thing driving the election, but for some voters it's going to be enough that it might help convince them."