DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — More than 2.3 million Americans already have cast ballots for the November midterm elections, with both Republicans and Democrats saying the early votes are helping sway the election their way.
Republicans in Iowa and Florida, in particular, are celebrating their push for early votes, an electoral strategy the GOP once essentially ceded to Democrats.
Florida leads the early totals, with more than 891,000 early ballots cast. Republicans account for almost half of those, compared to about 35 percent for Democrats. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's campaign says that gap proves his momentum, even as polls show him trailing Democrat Charlie Crist, himself a former Republican governor who switched parties to seek his old job.
In Iowa, Republicans hope a new focus on early voting will prove vital in the nail-biter Senate race between Republican Joni Ernst, a 44-year-old state lawmaker, and Democrat Bruce Braley, a 56-year-old congressman. The outcome will help determine which major party controls the Senate in January.
Republicans need six more seats for a majority, and picking off the seat being opened by the retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin would be a boon.
The state GOP in Iowa has used everything from robo-calls, mailers and door-knocking activists — at a cost of more than $1 million — to encourage early voting.
Through Oct. 19, nearly 200,000 ballots have been cast in Iowa — 42 percent from Democrats and 41 percent from Republicans. The gap was much larger at the same point in 2010, leaving Republicans optimistic in a state that President Barack Obama won twice by competitive margins.
About 365,000 ballots in Iowa have been requested in total. Democrats requested about 11,000 more ballots than Republicans.
Republican strategist David Kochel, who is managing direct mail for the effort, said Obama's win in 2012 forced the party to "learn lessons."
The key question, though, is whether the efforts from both sides generate new votes or simply get reliable voters to the polls early.
Braley claims Democrats are doing the better job of "finding people that wouldn't have shown up to vote." Aides at Democratic national campaign offices said party data suggests their new midterm voters — those who didn't vote in 2010 — outnumber new Republican midterm voters by a significant margin.
Former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky said, "We got the robo-call from the governor," referring to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. "What that tells me is that their effort is not very targeted," Dvorsky said.
In Florida, the early votes cast already represent about 38 percent the entire early vote in 2010.
In a message to Scott supporters last week, the governor's campaign noted that almost a third of Republicans who had requested early ballots had already been returned them to elections officials. That compares with about 24 percent returned by Democrats. That gap is wider than the advantage Republicans had over Democrats at this stage of voting in both 2010 and 2012.
Deputy Campaign Manager Tim Saler also noted that Republicans had notched an early advantage in southeast Florida, where Democrats anchor their statewide coalition.
Crist adviser Steve Schale answered in his own memo with same defense as Democrats in Iowa.
"Only 73 percent of people who have returned an absentee ballot voted in 2010," he wrote. "The other 27 percent — they didn't vote in 2010. ... And Democrats have an edge, with 32 percent of their votes coming from voters who did not participate in 2010, compared to 20 percent of Republicans."
Party strategists say advanced voting will likely be pivotal in tight Senate races in Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina. Only in Georgia have officials reported in early figures, with 162,726 ballots cast, about a fifth of the 2010 total. Georgia voters don't register by party, making it difficult to assess which party has an advantage.
Barrow reported from Mobile, Alabama. Follow the reporters on Twitter @catherine_lucey and @BillBarrowAP.