Campaigns & Elections interviews Civic Forum PAC’s Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson on their latest grassroots initiative to turn Nevada in the Republicans’ favor in 2010– “Turn Nevada Red.
C&E: What is the mission of Turn Nevada Red?
O’Connell: Right now, the national media is focused on Reid/Angle race. And there is a lot of symbolism to it. Reid is the face of big government and out of control spending. But there are other issues at stake in the midterm elections… One of them is redistricting. If the Republicans can control the Nevada state House and Senate, they are in a good position for redistricting [following the 2010 census]. They need to take 2 seats in the Senate to take control. The census indicates that Nevada is in a good position to gain a seat [in congress]. How the [majority party] redraws those lines will determine where that seat falls. It is possible for Republicans to increase their numbers in the United States Congress. All of it comes down to a race in Nevada’s 3rd District, where [Rep. Dina] Titus faces Joe Heck. If Joe Heck wins, we also believe that Angle will win.
C&E: How does Turn Nevada Red help its chosen candidates?
Pearson: Conceptually, we take information from down ballot candidates and make it visible. We are an easy, one-stop-shop for someone who is not familiar with the landscape. Outside a given state, the chances that you know the local assembly or congressional races falls off pretty dramatically. The nuts and bolts [of Turn Nevada Red] is to push its information up to the top where you have a national audience of conservatives and Republicans who feel strongly about what happens in Washington. They want to help defeat Harry Reid, but they don’t know the specifics, which can help down ballot candidates.
Back in 2008, we saw a Republican party with a lot of tech-envy of the Obama campaign, with [grass-roots, technology-centric organizations like] Act Blue and Organizing for America. Right after 2008, lots of Republican activists were talking about the campaign in 2012. But there are off-year elections and congressional midterms. Democrats do a better job at the local level; there is a lot of attention being paid to national races but the activity is at the local level. It’s like a rotary club in a sense.
O’Connell: What is the message of Turn Nevada Red? We are putting out an example of what party organizations and conservative groups can do without putting a lot of money [into individual races]. The thing we did here literally any state party or organization can do with no technical training. Simply look at what we do [with Twitter and Facebook] – an intern could copy it and implement it. Erick Erickson was recently talking about what Democrats did with Act Blue and Organizing for America and he was bemoaning the lack of that [netroots phenomenon] on the right. There are things that are happening and you need to look down rather than up on the pedestal.
C&E: Turn Nevada Red’s primary focusis on technology?
Pearson: There is a difference between perception, aspiration and reality. What we saw with [Virginia Governor] Bob McDonnell and [Massachusetts Senator] Scott Brown – for all intents, they had unlimited budgets for get-out-the-vote and advertising, as well as technology. People that were influencers on the GOP side see the dollars that are spent on those campaigns and that is what they focus on. On one hand, you get a lot of chatter and focus on mobile technology. There is little expertise or money to implement [mobile initiatives], but that is what opinion leaders are talking about. There is no attention being paid to best practices – training, for example. How to organize a precinct based on Facebook. Instead we see a lot of superficial mobile apps; people reading about and talking about these things, but not taking it to the next level.
O’Connell: I would argue to be cautious. There are a lot of things that I don’t see the GOP using: Facebook, Twitter and email targeting. Email is the most effective innovation to reach out to people since the Gutenberg Press. Facebook, for all purposes, has replaced the town square. It is where people hang out. You can get a better return on investment from that tool as you could from the most pie-in the-sky iPhone app.
Pearson: That’s where the Republican party falls off. Democrats do basic technology well – a community organizer knows how to use those [social networking] tools. The Republican side is much more sink or swim. If you are running a small municipal campaign, there are many things you cannot possibly afford. If my campaign’s budget is $5000, you have to ask: “what is the best, most cost effective thing I can do?” That’s not readily apparent on the Republican side.
O’Connell: The Democratic technology class has also spent a lot of time in the field, talking organizing principles. Our guys are taking technology ideas and filtering them through organizing principles, and it is not working as well. [Turn Nevada Red] is trying to connect the candidate to the voter. We take absolutely nothing, all donations go directly to the candidates – we take no percentage, no fee.
C&E: Did Turn Nevada Red make endorsements before the primaries had played themselves out?
Pearson: At the local level, all our work was done after the primaries. Civic Forum PAC made some endorsements, but the spotlight on candidates happened after the primaries.
C&E: Turn Nevada Red is focusing a lot of attention on the House race in Nevada’s 3rd District. You have said it is a microcosm that represents all of Nevada. Are there precincts where you’re looking for good returns that may signal how things are going to go on Election Night?
Pearson: [Nevada’s 3rd District] is one of the areas where we are looking for movement. Really, it is going to be such a close race that I don’t think there will be any single precinct to watch; it will be a very close race everywhere. [the Titus/Heck race] is the same dead heat that Reid and Angle are. If Heck wins, Angle wins. I see Heck and Angle most closely aligned, much more than Heck and Sandoval. It is not inconceivable for someone to vote for Brian Sandoval and Dina Titus.
C&E: Civic Forum PAC’s previous venture Project Virginia helped elect Governor McDonnell in 2009. How much of that was ground operation, aided by Civic Forum PAC, and how much was the nascent Republican “wave” that we are seeing manifest this year?
O’Connell: I think Project Virginia defiantly laid a foundation for [McDonnell’s victory]. I don’t know if I would attribute [his victory to Project Virginia] alone, but it started the ball rolling. If you wanted to look at ground operation, I would look at the 2009 governor’s race in New Jersey with [Governor Chris] Christie. [Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Creigh Deeds] was a candidate with no message, while [Gov. Bob McDonnell] ran a stellar campaign. Organizations pivoted to New Jersey to fight it out county by county. I don’t want to take anything away from [Scott] Brown’s victory. There was a successful effort to make inroads into an arctic blue state [like Massachusetts], true, but let’s remember it was the only game in town. It is easy to focus all your attention on one race. I think sometimes [the Republican victory in the Massachusetts special Senate election in January] is slightly overplayed. In Brown’s case, there was a good candidate with a great message versus a train wreck. In that case, I side with [FiveThirtyEight blogger] Nate silver – Brown’s opponent [Martha Coakley] was a train wreck.
C&E: Ford, you received Campaigns & Elections Reed Award for twitter use in 2009 for your work with Project Virginia. Are you taking that experience with you to Nevada?
O’Connell: Absolutely. What we did with the Reed Award in Project Virginia was about pushing information about the candidates into the Twitter-sphere and then pushing it out to our followers. We are seeing that again with the Turn Nevada Red Twitter. Last week, Twitter’s Vice President came out saying twitter is not a social network; it is a distribution system for information. At the end of the day it is about packaging and pushing information. It is a journalism ticker; the internet equivalent of the crawl at the bottom of the news screen. It is real news in real time.
C&E: With two similar state-based initiatives in Virginia and Nevada under your belts, what are Civic Forum PAC’s plans going forward? Do you plan on expanding out to all 50 states?
O’Connell: Civic Forum PAC is just trying to get to the 2010 elections. We are just trying to get candidates elected; then we will reassess our situation. In 2011, there is a slate of governor’s races and legislative races that we will begin pay attention to.
Pearson: We are building the farm team. We see the Republican Party needing to invest at the state and local level; bringing people up through the ranks, especially strong governors. That is where party leadership will come form, people who are connected to the constituents.
O’Connell: Good ideas are mainstream ideas. They are not inside the beltway and they are not on Wall Street. The closer you can get to the ideas of Main Street the better the party will do in the future.
C&E: Then we will look forward to Turn Kentucky Red in 2011.
O’Connell: [laughs] we’ll see.
C&E: Any final thoughts you would like to leave our readers with?
O’Connell: If you are looking for top lines for Election Night, watch the race in Nevada’s 3rd District. As far as Turn Nevada Red, there are a lot of technology platforms, which are taking a percentage or something else. We are just trying to prove a concept and move the GOP forward. We have removed the middle man and we take nothing from donors, unlike an Act Blue. I understand why the take a percentage, but we simply trying to connect two dots.
Ford O’Connell is the co-Founder & Chairman of Civic Forum PAC and a co-creator of Turn Nevada Red. A leading Republican strategist and seasoned campaign veteran at the local, state and national level, Mr. O’Connell pens op-eds and political commentary for publications including the Washington Times, The American Spectator, Campaigns & Elections magazine, Townhall.com and The Daily Caller. A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, Mr. O’Connell holds graduate degrees from the University of Mississippi, Duke University and Northwestern University, in addition to a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College where he was a member of the football, basketball and lacrosse teams. Earlier this year, Project Virginia won Campaigns & Elections’ 2010 Reed Award for “Best Use of Twitter.” In May, Mr. O’Connell was named a 2010 Rising Star by Campaigns & Elections.
Steve Pearson is the co-Founder of Civic Forum PAC and co-creator of Turn Nevada Red. Mr. Pearson is a political technologist and Republican strategist who spent two decades in the private sector creating solutions which synthesized market insights, process design and technology innovation across a broad spectrum of industries before diving into politics almost ten years ago. Mr. Pearson co-founded Project Virginia in 2009 to make social media and web 2.0 technologies more accessible to Republican candidates. Mr. Pearson earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University and an MBA from Georgetown University.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org