In swing-state Florida, the 2018 congressional election has already begun

Victor Bisbal, 15; Batiah Sinepha, 16, and Souline Mervil, 14, work the phones at Congressional Leadership Fund’s West Kendall office, opened to help reelect Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
Victor Bisbal, 15; Batiah Sinepha, 16, and Souline Mervil, 14, work the phones at Congressional Leadership Fund’s West Kendall office, opened to help reelect Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. Miami Herald staff

The exasperated man answered the door of his West Kendall home, annoyed at being interrupted from work and hollering at his furry little dog, Sacha, who had rushed to sniff out the unexpected visitors: a pair of high school volunteers holding clipboards and a stack of political fliers.

The volunteers promised they had only three questions. Had he heard of his congressman, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo? (He had.) Which issue — tax reform, the economy, the environment — mattered most to him? (Lower taxes.) Was he familiar with Curbelo’s efforts to combat climate change?

“I don’t believe in that,” the man said in Spanish. “That’s a lie. That’s just normal, in nature.”

The volunteers said thank you. The man picked up his dog and shut the door.

This is what the 2018 campaign looks like — in 2017.

Fifteen months before next year’s congressional midterm elections, political organizations are already involved in field operations, making calls to voters and knocking on their doors in what has become a never-ending campaign cycle.

And in this case, the volunteers sweltering under the summer sun don’t even work for Curbelo.

They’re interns for Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House Speaker Paul Ryan that two months ago opened an office in Curbelo’s swing 26th congressional district and set out to help get the sophomore Republican reelected.

“The old model is stale and lazy — the old model being, ‘Let me raise as much money I possibly can find. Let me save it, and then I’m going to spend it all on television in the month of October’ ” of the election year, said Corry Bliss, the super PAC’s executive director.

Ahead of 2018, Bliss said the super PAC has already opened 15 offices in priority districts across the country, with 15 more to come by the end of the year. The only other Florida office is in the 18th district, held by freshman Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City.

Congressional Leadership Fund has pledged to spend $100 million over two years to try to keep the House under GOP control.

“The earlier you do it, the more dividends it pays,” Bliss said. “That interaction at the door is more impactful than any TV ad could ever be.”

Driving the super PAC is the idea that focusing on issues that matter locally (read: climate change) wins more races than focusing on national issues, especially with as unpredictable a president as Donald Trump. In each district, the super PAC identifies some 80,000 voters who could be decisive in the election, and contacts them, over and over again. Curbelo comfortably won reelection last year by some 33,000 votes.

The man who answered his West Kendall door Wednesday declined to give his name to a Miami Herald reporter. But he said he’s been visited four or five times this year by various campaigns — a sign he’s a reliable GOP voter targeted by many conservative interests.

Carlos Caballero, 15, and Sajira Guevara, 17, go door to door in West Kendall, asking people like Yaniel Martinez about Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald staff

While Congressional Leadership Fund’s early field foray into congressional districts is unusual for a Republican super PAC, its belief that it takes a long time to build relationships with voters is not. The political left adopted the principles of community organizing decades ago; it’s the same model that got former President Barack Obama elected twice and helped turn public opinion in favor of same-sex marriage.

“They’re trying to maintain the support that they have and keep some semblance of an operation going. They’re doing what we did in 2010, 2011: You’re trying to maintain some level of activation,” said Ashley Walker, an Obama 2012 Florida campaign veteran and Democratic strategist for For Our Future, a progressive organization that is doing year-round field work.

A few Democratic candidates themselves have started to campaign far ahead of the 2018 election, including Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, whose team has been canvassing neighborhoods, dropping off fliers and surveying voters ahead of her nonpartisan primary next August.

Walker said Democrats face a different challenge than Republicans, who control the House, Senate and White House.

“There’s been a lot of mobilization on the left, in terms of just people being appalled and protesting a lot of the actions coming out of the White House,” she said. “We’ve really tried to make an effort to channel that energy and passion into action that can make a difference beyond protesting. We’re trying to bring new people into the fold that maybe haven’t been engaged.”

It took Obama’s victories to get the political right to embrace long-term community involvement, an expensive operation to sustain. In Florida, perhaps no conservative organization has taken full-time field work more to heart than Americans for Prosperity, part of the political network created by the industrialist Koch brothers.

“To the credit of the left, they’ve been invested in their communities,” said Chris Hudson, the organization’s state director. “They know the only way you move people on their issues is to be with them permanently.”

Since 2010, Americans for Prosperity has been on the ground across the state, communicating with voters what Hudson calls issues that pertain to “a free and open society” at the federal, state and local levels. The group says it employs five full-time field directors in Miami-Dade County alone, and also uses its nonprofit arm to offer classes to learn English, obtain U.S. citizenship and organize personal finances.

“We look 10 years down the road and say, ‘This is where we want Florida to be.’ You know it’s not going to happen overnight,” Hudson said. “You can’t build a community, you can’t educate everyone, if it’s a one-time one-off.”

For Hudson, that sometimes means calling out Republicans who don’t adhere to Americans for Prosperity’s principles. That’s counter to what Congressional Leadership Fund and the national Republican Party are trying to do, which is keep Republicans in office and get more of them elected.

Last year, Florida Democrats and even some Republicans dismissed the Republican National Committee’s ground operation in the state — until Trump carried Florida on Election Day. What the GOP did — train staff and volunteers to work neighborhoods using a data-driven voter model developed after Obama’s 2012 reelection — turned the 2.8-percentage-point lead Hillary Clinton held over Trump the Friday before Election Day into a 1.2-percentage-point Trump victory.

The RNC has remained in the state since November, updating its data with monthly voter surveys (one takeaway: voters dislike “obstructionism”) and maintaining some field presence ahead of 2018, when the party plans to take a big role in trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

“We’re training members of the actual community so we don’t have to ship people in from elsewhere,” RNC spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury said. “We’re talking to people who go to church with you, whose kids go to school with yours.”

“It’s hard to be successful when you swoop in six months before an election.”