Political Horizons: New kind of campaign coming to Louisiana

Because Louisiana voters have been seeing red over the past few years, the state was pretty much left out of the 2012 presidential campaign, but for a couple trips to pick up money behind closed doors and a hurricane photo op.

With Republicans holding all statewide elected positions, a majority of the Louisiana Legislature, and all the congressional districts except the one specifically designed to elect a black congressman, the national parties decided their efforts were better spent elsewhere.

That was then.

This spring, political activists will swarm Louisiana neighborhoods, pounding on doors in what promises to be the opening salvos of a “big data” war being waged by the national parties.

The U.S. Senate has 53 Democrats and 45 Republicans. The GOP would need to win six more seats to control both chambers of Congress. They have focused on four Democratic incumbents in states where President Barack Obama lost in 2012, including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana.

“We haven’t been targeted in quite a while because we haven’t had a competitive race,” said Jason DorĂ©, the executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana.

Usually, national parties would arrive in September for a November vote. They pay for a few mailers, buy a commercial or two. This time, both Republicans and Democrats have been in Louisiana for some months. Their early involvement means a far different campaign than this state is used to.

Nasty attack ads are not new, but they already are airing in Baton Rouge and New Orleans for balloting that is 10 months away. The commercials were bought by ideological and special interest political action committees, often organized as “Super PACS,” which have few fund-raising restrictions.

“With these Super PACs and different outside groups, who are doing a lot of mail and TV, that was becoming duplicative” with what the national parties have traditionally done, DorĂ© said. “So we should do what we’re good at and that is getting grassroots working, building the party. Let others handle doing the media.”

The Republican National Committee is helping its local branch hire more staff and open eight to 10 offices around the state in an effort called Project Geaux Red. Women will still hold their coffee klatches, but the main effort now is to recruit about 60 activists around the state who are willing to work year-round — not just during elections — to talk with and learn about their neighbors.

“It’s that quality of contact between the volunteer and the voter that is really critical to the election.” said Matt Pinnell, the RNC director of state parties. “We need to know what motivates a particular voter to go to the polls. The RNC is investing a lot of money to build a national database and working with state parities on that work that has to be done.”

The Republicans are working on a new data interface and mobile capabilities so that the volunteers going door-to-door can update the voter information in a national database.

Pinnell says the Republicans will have to work hard to catch up with the Democrats.

On this point, Stephen Handwerk, the executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, agrees.

The Democrats call their effort Blue Dat, and it has been going on for more than a year, he said. Local Democrats are training activists on how to use social media, how to engage neighbors in political discussions, the basics of running phone banks and successful canvassing.

Democrats have been organizing a successor to President Barack Obama’s hi-tech database, which helped his campaigns identify supporters and the issues that motivated them to go vote on election day.

Back in the old days, a candidate would go to the local registrar and buy a list of registered voters, then start canvassing the district without really knowing who supported their candidacy and who did not.

“If they’re knocking on a door and it’s two weeks before an election, it’s really good to know if the door you’re knocking on actually has a registered voter behind it,” Handwerk said. “We’re able to accurately depict and steer our candidates and our volunteers to the places that matter, so that we’re not wasting time on folks or on votes that will never materialize for us.”

It’s a new approach for electioneering, and the parties are trying it out on Louisiana.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard @theadvocate.com