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Can the tea party deliver voters on Election Day?

October 30, 2010

Dave Ulsh, 22, of Virginia Beach, Va., left, and Matt Matyjek, 20, left, of New York, both interns with … EDISON, N.J. – Come Tuesday, can the tea party deliver the votes to turn a campaign of fiery enthusiasm into actual members of Congress?

Here in Central New Jersey, Republican Anna Little has never before run for Congress, and she has just 2 1/2 cents for every dollar her Democratic opponent can put into the race. For her to score an upset, it's going to take a strong showing from the tea party activists who volunteer for her each weekend.

"Anna's Army" is one example of the tea party's loosely organized effort nationwide to get out the vote against the far more experienced operation being waged by labor unions and President Barack Obama's political team. Her supporters come by the dozens, often more than 100 at a time, to hand-deliver campaign material.

"So many of us, it's the very first time we've been involved in politics," says one of them, Nick Romagnoli, a semiretired commercial real estate broker who worries about the national debt. "We've just had enough."

There's little question the tea party has generated more enthusiasm than its adversaries through much of this campaign. But in the final days, discipline and organization — hallmarks of both Obama's operation and the unions — rise in importance in driving results. Election Day will tell if an antiestablishment group that prides itself on being leaderless can compete on that front.

Republican candidates with tea party support are in 39 competitive contests for the House, eight for the Senate and three for governor, according to an Associated Press analysis. In close races, an effective strategy for identifying supporters and getting them to the polls could decide the winner.

In New Jersey, Little's campaign is up against a formidable operation — Rep. Frank Pallone's $4 million re-election fund and political organization built during 22 years in office. That includes the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, which planned to make several pitches on Pallone's behalf to about 40,000 members and their families living in the district and has a goal of delivering 75,000 votes.

"This isn't like Ms. Little, where the last three weeks they run around hollering and screaming," said the union's president, Charles Wowkanech. "We have a coordinated program that we have been running for the past 12 years. This isn't something we just started yesterday."

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, Tim Dake, organizer of the Milwaukee-based tea party group the GrandSons of Liberty, said about 20 volunteers started making voter phone calls Sunday off a list provided by American Majority, a Virginia group that trains conservative activists and candidates.

"I don't know how big of an impact it will be," Dake said. "Frankly for us this is a learning experience for 2012."

While Dake said his group hopes to make thousands of calls, the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin reports it has already made more than 2.5 million phone calls and sent 2.5 million pieces of mail in support of Democratic candidates.

"We've been doing this type of work for a long, long time," said Sara Rogers, the union's political and field director. "It isn't something that we just started this year, last year or two years ago."

Democratic candidates nationwide also are getting support from Organizing for America, Obama's political operation based at Democratic National Committee headquarters, which is trying to reach 7 million voters in the last week of the election. Republican National Committee officials say they are catching up to a superior Democratic ground game in years past with 360 "victory offices" around the country where volunteers are working phone banks and picking up neighborhood walking lists.

"Democrats have traditionally had an advantage on us, but we're closing the gap," said RNC spokesman Doug Heye. He said volunteers have already made millions more contacts than they did two years ago in the presidential race, and GOP turnout was higher in primaries.

Tea party efforts to get out the vote vary based on local organization and are being run by multiple national groups that aren't consulting with one another.

"There is no overall game plan," said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler. "These are folks on the ground who are smart enough to figure out what to do. They don't need to be told what to do. They can reach out for help all they want. There are tools and tips we can give them. But they are building something that they own."

The Tea Party Patriots, counting 2,800 local groups of various size across the country among its coalition, is running a get-out-the-vote campaign but not in support of specific candidates. Instead it is encouraging local activists to tell voters to choose candidates who want to repeal the health care law, cut federal debt and balance the federal budget.

The Tea Party Express PAC has endorsed candidates, but chief strategist Sal Russo said it's not involved directly in phone banking or door-to-door recruiting of voters, instead focusing on a nationwide bus tour to rally the faithful.

FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, runs campaign training programs. Rob Jordan of that group says the right can learn a lot from the successes of Obama's field organization two years ago.

"Watching it from the outside, that's where we want to be," Jordan said.

FreedomWorks is supporting phone banks or door-to-door campaigns in 16 Senate races and 32 House races. The group provides yard signs and advises volunteers to put them along busy roadways. It prints fact sheets touting local candidates to hang on doors, with the suggestion that homes displaying American flags are good places to go.

In New Jersey, Frank Giarlo, a 74-year-old former Democrat who doesn't identify himself with the tea party, was among those who got a visit from Anna's Army. He told his visitors his health insurance costs have risen dramatically since he retired 13 years ago and he fears the health care law will make his rates still higher. He asked the volunteers to leave a Little campaign sign for his yard.

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