For Minnesota's political foot soldiers, it's go time

State Senate hopeful Cory Campbell doorknocking.
State Senate hopeful Cory Campbell points to the next house in Rosemount on a door-knock list after he and Republican Rep. Anna Wills leave materials at a house where no one answers on Oct. 22, 2016.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

When DFL Party staffer Ryan SanCartier dispatched a group of door knockers in a competitive suburban area recently, he instructed them to take good notes on their encounters with voters.

After all, the odds were good they'd be back in these neighborhoods again — and again — before Election Day.

"The biggest thing is we want to be doing hard-asks because we are going to be doing the first wave here," SanCartier advised after role-play exercises demonstrating how to talk up the DFL ticket and formulate a voting plan with the people on the voter lists.

Ryan SanCartier gives tips on talking to voters.
Ryan SanCartier gives tips on talking to voters to volunteers at a DFL Party office in Apple Valley on Oct. 22, 2016.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

As he trained door knockers at the front of a former bank building, volunteers in the back, near the old vault, worked their way down phone lists trying to gather even more voter intelligence.

For Democrats and Republicans, it's crunch time. The parties are ratcheting up efforts to reach and motivate Minnesota voters as Nov. 8 approaches. That means big data dives and lots of door knocking, especially in the most competitive districts.

The parties, candidates and their allies have the plan of attack down to a science. They know how regularly you vote. They know your political leanings based on the groups you belong to, the magazines you subscribe to, the type of car you drive. They can tailor the issues they present based on the sense they have of your inclinations.

GOP Chair Keith Downey
GOP Chair Keith Downey spoke at a press conference at the Minnesota State Office Building on Sept. 24, 2014.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2014

But this year, even the political pros are nervous.

"Who to reach and how to reach them is very different this year or at least there are variables you don't think you can predict perfectly this year," said Keith Downey, chair of the Minnesota Republican Party Chair Keith Downey. "That's a bit different than past elections."

He was referring to the huge uncertainty caused by the presidential race, which has been both a motivator and a turnoff.

"There are a number of things about this election at the national level at least that create dynamics where you are trying to identify people who don't traditionally show up but might be excited about our candidate this year," said Downey, whose organization was in the midst of a "Day of Action" with its volunteers hitting the streets.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin, the DFL state party chair, speaks to delegates at the DFL state convention in Rochester June 2, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR 2012

Downey added: "You also have the double-edged sword of people who maybe aren't excited about what's played out on the national level but making sure they still get out and vote for your down-ballot races."

State DFL Party Chair Ken Martin agrees. Conventional wisdom in this year's election has often been wrong, especially about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, he said.

"There's no doubt for me as an operative, as someone whose business is running and winning elections, the thing that is of great concern to us is what is that turnout is going to look like," he said.

While some Democrats cheered Hillary Clinton's polling advantage recently in Minnesota and other places, Martin remained measured.

He said he worries about a "mindset that's starting to develop that she has this in the bag that somehow she's already won this election. The drop in enthusiasm and complacency setting in could be the perfect recipe for disaster from us."

The DFL has 350 people on staff working out of 25 offices around Minnesota. Republicans are guarded about headcount details, but Downey said the vote-wrangling operation is much more diffuse this year.

Turnout operations for his side are concentrated largely in districts with hot races for the Legislature and Congress. That's because there is no governor or United States Senate race to anchor the ballot — for the first time in 12 years — and Trump hasn't made Minnesota a true target.

Both sides activated their voter turnout programs in September, when early voting began.

Absentee ballots are pouring in at a record clip because restrictions on who could vote early were done away with a few years ago. The parties get frequent updates on who has voted absentee so they can stop talking to those people and concentrate on those who haven't voted.

Everytown for Gun Safety-organized door knocking event.
Megan Walsh, in white, listens as Beth Potter explains why she came to an Everytown for Gun Safety-organized door knock on Oct. 22, 2016.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

As of late last week, the Minnesota Secretary of State's office said more than 250,000 ballots had been accepted so far, with many more sent out. That's far beyond the 82,000 returned as of that stage two years before. It also exceeded the 2012 level, but back then voters had to have a valid excuse to vote absentee.

It's not just the candidates and parties trying to turn out voters.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a group promoting stricter gun laws, organized a canvass in the Burnsville area after fanning out across a Plymouth district the weekend before. More than a dozen volunteers were sent out with carefully calibrated lists of potentially persuadable voters.

The group, operating under the banner of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, has a single goal in mind: Get people to vote for the House candidate who supports background checks for all firearm sales.

In this case, the group was promoting DFL challenger Lindsey Port, who is trying to defeat Republican incumbent Roz Peterson. The district has tended to swing between the parties every two years.

"We're working to elect a gun-sense majority," Everytown coordinator Aaron Roth told his crew. "What we're doing is in targeted districts around the Twin Cities, actually around the state, where districts are won or lost with a handful of votes — 50 votes, 100 votes, 400 votes — places where we can find enough voters who care enough about this issue to vote for the gun-sense candidate."

Megan Walsh of Minneapolis headed out carrying her infant daughter in a car seat. At one door, she began by sharing a story about losing a family friend to gun violence and then rattled off statistics about gun purchases to an undecided voter. Then Walsh made the ask.

"Is this something you support?" Walsh said to the man.

"Honestly, I really don't know. I don't know what the repercussions of such a law would enact," he replied.

She left him with a postcard bearing Port's name and urged him to vote.

On the political right, organizations like the American Action Network are working to identify and turn out voters, too.

Records show a combined $650,000 spent by the group on canvassing in Minnesota's 3rd and 8th congressional districts alone, both home to expensive and competitive races. The group declined a request to let a reporter tag along.

There are plenty of candidates for a range of city, state and federal offices on the hunt for votes.

Republican Rep. Anna Wills spent a weekend afternoon re-introducing herself to voters in Rosemount. She breezed to wins in the past two elections, but Democrats are targeting her seat this time in their quest to retake the majority. Republicans currently control the House by a 73 to 61 margin.

"I'm still reminding people who I am," Wills said. "A lot of people recognize me and remember me when I come to the door."

As Wills and state Senate hopeful Cory Campbell made their way around one neighborhood, they found few people home and left materials in the doors when no one answered the knock.

Campbell acknowledged worry about certain segments of the Republican base sitting the election out over Trump's candidacy.

"Especially Republican women, if they are not wanting to come out and vote at all, that is a concern. That will be an emphasis going forward to make sure they get out to the polls," Campbell said, adding that he has heard less about the presidential race lately.

The pair had a couple of polite conversations but also encountered a voter who cut off the conversation quickly so he could get back to watching a college football game. It was a reminder that politics often takes a backseat.

"People are pretty sick of it. People have been telling me at the doors, 'Is it over yet?' And mostly they're complaining about the national level," Wills said. "But it has a trickle-down effect of where they are frustrated at politics in general because of negativity."

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