DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Using robo-calls from the popular governor, mailers adorned with pictures of Uncle Sam and a small army of door-knocking activists, Iowa Republicans are making a serious push to encourage early voting — a strategy they have not emphasized in past elections, but that could pay off in the too-close-to-call Senate race.
For years, Democrats have dominated early voting in Iowa, while Republicans largely focused on Election Day turnout. But this year, the GOP has invested millions to get conservatives to cast ballots early. A similar effort has been underway nationally, with Republicans seeking to expand their electorate in many competitive states. The investment may prove vital to Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst in her tight race against Democrat Bruce Braley for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.
"The one thing the Democrats had us beat on for years was this early voting and we're taking that away from them," crowed Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who recently led an effort to install new leadership at the Iowa Republican Party, which has run the early voting program.
Early voting has been available in Iowa since Sept. 25, either by mail or in-person at the offices of county auditors. Through Monday, just over 322,000 ballots had been cast, with 41 percent coming from Democrats and 40 percent from Republicans. The gap was much wider at this point in 2010.
Fliers featuring cajoling messages from Uncle Sam or Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley started going out to hundreds of thousands of households in late September. Door to door visits by paid staff, as well as volunteers, have been underway for months.
Ernst, 44, a state lawmaker and officer in the Iowa National Guard, and Braley, 56, a four-term congressman, are locked in one of the closest Senate races in the nation. Millions in campaign spending has poured into the state as Republicans target Iowa in their drive for the six-seat gain they need to win control of the Senate.
The latest survey from Quinnipiac University showed Ernst with 48 percent of likely voters, compared with 46 percent for Braley. The survey had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.
Republicans are touting the shrinking gap in ballot returns as evidence they are doing better. But Democrats insist they are successfully targeting independents who probably wouldn't vote otherwise, while the GOP is just getting likely voters to show early.
"They've made progress. They are not doing what they are claiming they are doing," said Braley adviser Jeff Link.
Until all the votes are counted it is tough to say who is right. If Democrats aren't expanding their turnout, the midterm climate — especially with an unpopular Democratic president — could favor Republicans.
David Kochel, an informal adviser to Ernst who is managing the direct mail for the Iowa GOP effort, said he doesn't expect Republicans to win the early vote in the state but "we are a long ways ahead of where we were in 2010."
Nationally, the parties are very close in early voting. Roughly 8.6 million ballots have been cast so far in 27 states. About 41 percent have been for Republicans and 40 percent for Democrats. In states with tight Senate races, Democrats are far ahead in North Carolina and Louisiana, while Republicans currently lead in Colorado.
"The size and scope of what we're doing, and the sophistication, is much larger than anything the Republicans are doing," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I think they're better at spinning it than they were in the past."
Still, the GOP says they too are targeting those who don't always vote in non-presidential years. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said that after Republicans lost the 2012 presidential election, he "was not going to sit around and allow our national party to get steamrolled on early or absentee voting anymore." He also noted that improving early voting positions the GOP well for the 2016 presidential contest.
"This is a great opportunity to test our machinery, see where we're at, where we need to be," Priebus said.