Early Saturday morning, two buses filled with 100 young Democratic staffers and volunteers rumbled out of downtown Washington headed for the newly discovered battlegrounds of Virginia Beach and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The scene is being repeated across the country this weekend, in places like Albuquerque, central Minnesota and suburban Las Vegas as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tries to outdo the legendary GOP vote turnout machines of past election cycles with what may prove the biggest ground game in modern history.
The DCCC, having learned the lessons of Karl Rove’s 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort in 2000 and 2004, has set up 100,000 total volunteer “shifts” around the clock over the next three days in 60 battleground districts — a greatly expanded playing field from the 35 districts Democrats targeted in their successful 2006 bid to take control of the House.
New Mexico, for example, is on the verge of turning completely Democratic, thanks to early organizing efforts in the two largest congressional districts and a strong lead by Democratic Senate candidate Tom Udall.
“We were already in New Mexico six months before Obama got there” and set up operations, said Jennifer Crider, communications director for the DCCC.
The busloads of campaign workers that left Washington this morning headed to two House races now suddenly in play for Democrats: the Republican stronghold of eastern Maryland held by retiring GOP Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and the Virginia Beach-area seat held by Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.).
Democratic Senate operatives, meanwhile, are also trying to take advantage of the potential wave on Tuesday, deploying top Washington staff to Alaska and Minnesota Senate races. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for example, sent press secretary Rodell Mollineau to Anchorage to help Democrat Mark Begich defeat Sen. Ted Stevens.
Senate Republicans have mostly been engaged in a defensive posture, pouring money and staff resources into Minnesota and North Carolina in hopes of saving incumbent Sens. Norm Coleman and Elizabeth Dole. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has pulled several of his Washington staff down to Kentucky for the final push in his precarious reelection bid against Democrat Bruce Lunsford.
On the House Republican side, meanwhile, campaign committees are engaged in triage, plunging staff and resources in this final weekend into a handful of close races where they believe moderate incumbents have a shot of surviving the expected Democratic wave. In suburban Las Vegas, for example, Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) this morning deployed 12 vanloads of volunteers to key precincts, and Rudy Giuliani has flown in to campaign for Porter. A Las Vegas Review Journal poll this morning showed Porter tied 44-44 with Democrat Dina Titus, the former minority leader of the state Senate.
In south central North Carolina, meanwhile, Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), has one of the largest local GOTV efforts among House Republicans, with hundreds of volunteers fanning out in his district, which he won by just 330 votes in 2006.
But such robust operations are the exceptions in this final weekend as many Republican congressional campaigns are outgunned, outspent and simply hunkering down waiting for the end to come on Tuesday.
“Now it’s about minimizing the damage,” said one GOP congressional campaign operative. “The X factor for us is [Republican] turnout.”
The final argument for Republicans at this point, according to several GOP campaign strategists, rests on a plea to stop Democrats from getting a massive, unchallenged majority. On the campaign trail, Republicans stoke fears of a President Obama with a veto-proof 60-seat Senate majority and a Speaker Pelosi with an 80-vote advantage in the House.
“The blank check argument is effective, and we are warning people that should Obama win, we need a firewall,” said John Randall, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, touring a handful of districts in southwest Ohio, used that argument in rallies this weekend. Boehner’s fundraising for battleground districts has been one of the few bright spots in a tough money year for Republicans, as the minority leader has raised $23 million for his GOP colleagues.
“People bring it up at rallies all the time,” Boehner campaign spokesman Don Seymour said. “People ask about Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi.”
Yet that strategy may not be resonating nationwide, as Politico reported earlier today.