A lot of holes in GOP presidential ground game in key states

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Presidential battleground states were supposed to be swarming with Republican Party workers by now.

“We’ve moved on to thousands and thousands of employees,” party chairman Reince Priebus declared in March, contrasting that with the GOP’s late-blooming staffing four years earlier. “We are covering districts across this country in ways that we’ve never had before.”

That hasn’t exactly happened, a state-by-state review conducted by The Associated Press has found.

With early voting beginning in less than three months in some states, the review reveals that the national GOP has delivered only a fraction of the ground forces detailed in discussions with state leaders earlier in the year. And that is leaving anxious local officials waiting for reinforcements to keep pace with Democrat Hillary Clinton in the states that matter most in 2016.

To be sure, the national party actually has notched record levels of fundraising over the past few years and put together a much more robust ground game than it had in 2012. But officials acknowledge the real competition isn’t with their past results or the chronically cash-strapped Democratic Party. It’s Clinton and what GOP party chairman Reince Priebus calls “that machine” of Clinton fundraising.

Some examples of Republican shortfalls: Ohio Republicans thought they were going to see 220 paid staffers by May; in reality there are about 50. Plans for Pennsylvania called for 190 paid staffers; there are about 60. Iowa’s planned ground force of 66 by May actually numbers between 25 and 30. In Colorado, recent staff departures have left about two dozen employees, far short of the 80 that were to have been in place.

AP learned of the specific May staffing aims from Republicans who were briefed earlier this year; the RNC did not dispute them. Current totals came from interviews with local GOP leaders over the past two weeks.

The gulf between what state leaders thought they could count on and what they’ve actually got comes as the RNC’s ground game is asked to do more than ever before. Presumptive nominee Donald Trump is relying on the party to do most of the nuts-and-bolts work of finding and persuading voters in the nation’s most competitive battlegrounds.

“This is a race we should win,” Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges said, citing a voter registration boom. “Now, we have to put the people in the field.”

In New Hampshire, a swing state that also features one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests, the Republican National Committee’s original plan called for more than 30 paid staff on the ground by May. Yet what’s happening there highlights that even when the RNC is close to meeting its staffing goals, there can be problems. In this case, 20 positions have been converted to part-time, and local officials have been struggling to fill them.

“It’s a tall order to ask the RNC to be the complete field operation for the presidential nominee,” said Steve Duprey, a national party committeeman from New Hampshire. “We’re following through on the plan, but it was slower being implemented than we first would have hoped.”

Borges and Duprey, like other Republican leaders across the U.S., acknowledge that the national party has dramatically reduced its staffing plans in recent months.

“You discuss idealistic, you discuss realistic,” said RNC political director Chris Carr. “Some people hear what they want to hear.”

The RNC’s 242-person payroll cost $1.1 million in May, federally filed financial documents show. Additionally, the party transfers hundreds of thousands of dollars each month to state parties, which in turn hire more people.

Between direct RNC employees and state employees hired with the help of transfers, the party counts more than 750 staff members, including 487 spread across the country and concentrated in battleground states. By contrast, at this point in 2012, there were just 170 paid Republican operatives across the country.

Even the state leaders who are disappointed the RNC hasn’t yet hired as many ground troops as it had hoped say the party’s operation is bigger, better and more experienced than four years ago. The party’s first 2016 employees got to work in 2013, and they’ve road tested voter identification and turnout strategies all across the country.

Party leaders are also training hundreds of volunteers to help paid operatives identify likely Republican voters and get them to the polls this fall, which is one way to offset the need for so many paid employees.

“We are so far ahead of where we were last time that there’s almost no way to compare it,” said Garren Shipley, the RNC’s Virginia communications director. “And none of what we’ve built will go away on Inauguration Day.”


Bykowicz reported from Washington.

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