NRA, Ralph Reed group plan get-out-the-vote efforts

GOP worried about turnout

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 Updated:

Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed

John Bazemore/AP

The National Rifle Association, a Ralph Reed-led social conservative group and other organizations have quietly begun pumping millions of dollars into voter-registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat President Barack Obama and help primarily Republican congressional candidates in November.

The effort appears to be an attempt to match organized labor and liberal groups, known for their effectiveness in those areas. They come after at least a dozen states enacted GOP-backed laws tightening voter registration requirements.

Democrats fear that the laws will complicate their party’s efforts and those of liberal allies to register new voters and, in turn, suppress turnout among minorities and students, groups that provided crucial backing to the party in 2008. 

Democratic-allied unions such as the AFL-CIO and liberal groups including the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood are also pouring tens of millions of dollars into their own voter registration and mobilization drives.

Voters in many states already have been bombarded with millions of dollars in television ads this election season that have largely come from conservative and GOP-leaning groups such as American Crossroads, the Karl Rove created super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate which are aiming to raise $300 million and put the bulk of their resources into television spots which Republican allies are expected to dominate.

But the funding for ground wars, which are typically below the radar but could be decisive in close elections, is escalating on both sides:  GOP allied groups are upping the ante by challenging liberal allies in high stakes fights to expand their voting bases in battleground states.

“After 2008, I vowed that as far as possible within my ability I would never allow our side to be that badly outhustled on the ground again,” said Ralph Reed the former Christian Coalition leader.

This year, Reed hopes to deploy another conservative religious group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which he founded in 2009, to register and turn out “at least half” of the 17 million evangelicals he said didn’t vote in 2008.

Liberal groups are equally revved up about the importance of getting their base to the polls in November. The AFL-CIO and other big unions have announced they plan to spend $400 million on this year’s elections — including federal, state and local contests.

And the AFL alone is aiming to register 400,000 union members who aren’t registered, says Jeff Hauser, who runs political communications for the union. “Groups like Crossroads don’t have the members to do voter mobilization. That’s our strength.”

These outside allied drives are intended to complement voter mobilization operations by the national party committees and the presidential campaigns where Obama and the Democrats have an early money and infrastructure edge.

Plainly, both sides are aiming for a big turnout this fall. 

“This election is going to be won on the ground,” said Chris Cox, the top lobbyist for NRA which has recently launched what appears to be its biggest registration drive ever with a multimillion-dollar price tag. “There are millions of gun owners who aren’t registered,” Cox said, noting that about 100 million Americans own guns.

“We’ll go door to door to do voter registration, education and outreach,” said Cox in describing how the NRA is mounting its “Trigger the Vote” drive. The NRA, whose vaunted grassroots clout is based on its 4 million members,  has hired about two dozen “campaign field representatives” who are helping coordinate drives in over a dozen battleground states including Florida, Ohio and Virginia, Cox said. 

The NRA registration drive will “work gun shows and retailers” and includes a six-figure television advertising blitz that it launched in February, Cox added. “Voter registration is a very expensive and difficult undertaking.”

Most of the voter registration funding comes from the NRA’s Freedom Action Foundation, a nonprofit arm that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, Cox said. The Center has reported that one prominent foundation donor is Texas energy magnate Clayton Williams, who last year boasted at a Houston luncheon that drew top NRA officials, that he gave $1 million to the foundation in 2010 and intended to do so again in 2012. 

Three GOP lobbyists familiar with the expanded NRA registration and mobilization operations this year say that some sizable funds are expected to come from other conservative groups — or possibly major donors such as the billionaire Koch brothers — which are trying to share their largesse with allies with effective grassroots operations.

Cox declined to comment about funding for the NRA foundation, except to say that it mainly comes from small donors.

Likewise, other conservative stalwarts are trying to recoup their political fortunes from the 2008 elections.

Ralph Reed, who is trying to emerge from the cloud he was under because of his close ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff,  said that his Faith and Freedom Coalition has chapters in 30 states and boasts some 500,000 members — of which 185,000 have made donations.

Reed said coalition chapters in key states such as Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin have begun registration efforts. The coalition will also buy ads and  and focus on “earned media” in about 20 states where there are important multiple contests—presidential, congressional and gubernatorial — Reed said.

The conservative coalition, which reported in tax forms that it raised more than $5 million in 2010, hopes to spend about twice that amount this year with the bulk targeted for registration and get out the vote drives, Reed said.

To facilitate various conservative get-out-the-vote drives, two multimillion dollar data banks (one of which is reportedly bankrolled by the Kochs) filled with voter information have been assembled.

The more robust spending on voter mobilization work by the right is generating buzz among GOP operatives, some of whom attend periodic meetings hosted by American Crossroads. Crossroads and many other super PACs, both conservative and liberal, were spawned by court rulings in 2010 that gave the green light for corporations, unions and individuals to write unlimited checks for ads and other electoral drives that directly back or oppose candidates.

Crossroads President Steven Law has told the Center that it spent about $10 million in 2010 on voter mobilization operations. Some GOP consultants expect it will do more this cycle given that the super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate are aiming to raise $300 million — more than quadruple the $71 million that the two groups corralled in 2010. Jonathan Collegio, a Crossroads spokesman, said the groups “will be engaged” again in voter mobilization, but that it won’t be a “core function.”

Meanwhile, it’s expected that labor’s ground operations which have been energized this year by big battles in Ohio and Wisconsin against GOP led attempts to curtail public unions, could be more formidable.

At the AFL, the “lion’s share” of its spending will be for voter registration, grassroots mobilization and get-out-the-vote campaigns, said Hauser, who is in charge of political communication.

“Our focus is going to be overwhelmingly on voter mobilization,” Hauser added.

The 2010 court rulings that gave birth to super PACs also allow unions to dispatch its foot soldiers to talk to non-union members, not just fellow rank and filers.

And the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees will reportedly spend $100 million this year on its electoral efforts including hefty voter mobilization drives.

Likewise, a few liberal powerhouses are pouring big bucks into their ground drives — perhaps partly to make up for the demise in 2010 of the controversial community organizing group ACORN which boasted in 2008 that it registered over 1 million voters.

This year, the liberal-leaning Planned Parenthood Federation of America in tandem with its state affiliates, has initiated a multimillion dollar voter registration campaign, said Jordan Fitzgerald, the group’s director of field and electoral operations.

Overall, Planned Parenthood hopes to register hundreds of thousands of new women voters in seven states including Nevada, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, she said. The registration drive is being run by the group’s educational and advocacy arm and is “on a much larger scale than in the past,” Fitzgerald explained.

Further, the group expects to mount a large turnout campaign in 12 to 15 states, Fitzgerald added.

Similarly, the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund is launching its first voter registration effort, said Navin Nayak, the group’s political chief. It will be a multimillion dollar campaign focusing on 20 states including California, North Carolina and Texas, he said.

Further, the League will conduct a voter turnout program in six to eight states (through another nonprofit arm) that will be “much larger” than the $5.5 million which the League spent in 2010 on similar efforts, Nayak said.

The League is “going to focus on early voting and getting people to vote by mail,” Nayak explained. “This will be a closely fought election and running major field operations will be critical to winning.”