WASHINGTON — 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 aid GOP congressional candidates.
The strategy, coupled with Republican-backed voter ID laws enacted in at least a dozen states, poses a threat to Democrats by attempting to offset or even outperform traditionally effective voter mobilization efforts by organized labor and liberal groups.
It signals that, still seven months before Election Day, both sides are escalating funding for the ground wars, which are typically carried out below the radar but could be decisive in closely divided battleground states.
"After 2008, I vowed that as far as possible within my ability I would never allow our side to be that badly out-hustled on the ground again," said Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition.
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.
Democrats fear that the tightened state voter identification laws will complicate efforts by liberal-leaning groups to register new voters and thus suppress turnout among minorities and students, whose backing was critical in 2008.
Democratic-allied unions such as the AFL-CIO and liberal groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood, are countering by pouring tens of millions of dollars into their own voter registration and mobilization drives.
Liberal groups are equally revved up about the importance of getting their base to the polls in November. The AFL-CIO, the huge union umbrella group, and other big unions have announced plans to spend $400 million on this year's elections — including federal, state and local contests.
Voters in many states already have been bombarded this election season with millions of dollars in television ads, largely bankrolled by conservative and GOP-leaning groups such as American Crossroads, a so-called "super" political action committee created by former Bush White House advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. American Crossroads and its nonprofit affiliate are aiming to raise $300 million and put the bulk of their resources into television spots, an indication that Republicans could dominate the political advertising in the months ahead.
And the AFL-CIO 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," he said. "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 the NRA, which has recently launched a multimillion-dollar "Trigger the Vote" registration drive that appears to be its biggest ever. "There are millions of gun owners who aren't registered."
Noting that about 100 million Americans own guns, Cox said the group would "go door to door to do voter registration, education and outreach."
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 for Public Integrity 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.
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 also will buy ads and focus on "earned media" in about 20 states where there are important multiple contests — presidential, congressional and gubernatorial, Reed said.
The 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 databanks (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 for Public Integrity 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-CIO, 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 their 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 more than 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." (The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit center for investigative journalism.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY Gingrich backer Adelson hosts dinner featuring Romney supporters NRA helped spread 'stand your ground' laws across nation Money flooded into all presidential campaigns, PACs in February