Activist aims to update Minnesota GOP campaign efforts

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Minnesota for Marriage campaign materials during the 2012 campaign for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. GOP activist Ben Golnik says his party's focus on marriage drowned out other important issues at the polls.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News, file

When Republican operative Ben Golnik looks at a map of Minnesota, he sees opportunity.

Golnik thinks his party has a shot at taking over the state House and possibly the governor's mansion, and he formed a group called the Minnesota Jobs Coalition to do just that.

He says a GOP victory in 2014 will require finding and motivating pockets of conservative-leaning independents who Golnik says abandoned Republicans in 2012.

"The Minnesotans that care about jobs and the economy like the Republican's message," he said. "However, that message did not come out in 2012 because the focus was on the marriage amendment."

And while Golnik's immediate mission is to help Republicans win in 2014, his group is also aiming to change the way Republicans approach elections in Minnesota by using campaign tricks interest groups on the left have already mastered.

Instead of blanketing the state with fliers and ads a few months before the election as the Republican Party and other groups tend to do, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition got an early start in 2013 by criticizing Gov. Mark Dayton's taxation efforts and targeting a handful of vulnerable DFL lawmakers.

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This year, the Jobs Coalition will use the results of a massive data gathering effort to target voters in critical districts with personalized messages.

LOSSES PROMPT REASSESSMENT

Nov. 6, 2012 was a bad day for Republicans.

President Barack Obama won re-election and Democrats held on to the U.S. Senate.

In Minnesota, the news for the GOP was worse. In one night, the party lost control of the Minnesota House and Senate, and saw voters reject two constitutional amendments it strongly backed.

The defeats prompted some major soul searching by Republicans, including Golnik, who worked that year for two losing candidates.

"We've seen a lot of conversations about the need to do things differently and then people kind of revert and go back to the same way of doing things," Golnik said.

Kevin Magnuson, a Minneapolis lawyer with Kelley, Wolter & Scott and former Romney for President legal counsel, agreed with Golnik that their party needed a new approach.

First, Magnuson and Golnik saw that Republicans had no ground game in non-election years.

"The problem Republicans have is they have waited until close to the election season to gear up," said Magnuson, who now sits on the Jobs Coalition board along with Minneapolis lawyer David Asp and long-time GOP insider and former lawmaker Lyall Schwarzkopf.

"Meanwhile you have groups like ABM that have really built a year-round model that doesn't track on the election cycle. We saw that there was a void that nobody was doing anything about in the Republican Party, and we filled that void," Magnuson said.

ABM is shorthand for the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the communications arm for a coalition of unions and wealthy DFL donors that make coordinated decisions about which races and issues to spend their money on.

In early 2013, the Jobs Coalition started advertising in a special House election in St. Cloud, a district ultimately won by a Republican. And it spent about $5,000 on radio ads that tied a handful of vulnerable DFL House lawmakers to Dayton's efforts to expand the sales tax.

"By starting earlier, we're helping to set the narrative earlier," Golnik said.

The Jobs Coalition is also targeting Dayton for his role in the troubled health insurance website, MNsure, and for the misuse of his state airplane for campaign purposes.

TEST RUN IN MINNEAPOLIS

In 2013, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition raised nearly $92,000 for its political fund, but the cash came from only a handful of donors including $25,000 from former Rep. Chip Cravaack's dormant campaign fund (Golnik worked for Cravaack in 2012), $10,000 from gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour and another $10,000 from long-time GOP backer Whitney MacMillan, former CEO of Cargill.

Larger sums are being collected through the Jobs Coalition issue advocacy arm, which technically operates as a non-profit so it doesn't have to disclose its donors. Golnik says that between the two funds, the group has raised at least $250,000 in the last year.

That's where money for a massive voter data gathering effort is coming from, too. The Jobs Coalition's goal is to get a clearer sense of what potential Republican voters care about and what messages they are most responsive to.

Last fall, the Jobs Coalition commissioned a study that matched voter data with consumer data. Then, it hired the Center for Strategic Initiatives for an undisclosed amount to help test messages in the Minneapolis mayoral race, one that would most certainly be won by a Democrat but that allowed the group to experiment during a large election, a situation that's otherwise difficult to simulate. Fliers were sent to Minneapolis voters in favor of Cam Winton, a Republican candidate who focused on fiscal issues.

This year, the Jobs Coalition will use that experience to refine messages targeted at persuading and motivating swing voters in favor of Republicans - a particular challenge in an off-year election, which tends to bring out the most passionate members of the party bases.

This kind of microtargeting is efficient, said Andy Bechhoefer, a principle with Minneapolis-based Grassroots Solutions. It allows interest groups and campaigns to spend their money and time on voters who are willing to be convinced, not on those who are staunchly opposed or in support of a candidate or cause.

Bechhoefer pointed to a 2006 Minnesota campaign to increase the sales tax for land conservation and the arts. The models he built highlighted people who were undecided about the issue but who also hunted or fished.

"We could give them a very specific message about hunting and why this bill was important to them. That narrowed 2 million voters into 100,000 or so that would listen to that message," Bechhoefer said.

But academics who study the science of microtargeting point out that manpower is still very important to campaigns, and Minnesota Republicans have struggled in that area in recent election cycles.

Microtargeting makes it easier to figure out which doors to knock on and where to send mail, said David Nickerson, a political science professor at Notre Dame who served as "Director of Experiments" on the 2012 Obama campaign.

"But If you don't have the volunteer labor to make those phone calls, microtargeting can't help you," Nickerson said. "If your volunteers aren't persuasive or your candidate isn't resonating, microtargeting isn't going to help you."