Corry Bliss had little experience with a House campaign when he took charge of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC with ties to Speaker Paul Ryan. But he knew plenty about the suburban stretch of Atlanta and with Karen Handel – whose Senate campaign he ran in 2014.
Bliss’s group poured more than $7 million into the GOP effort to thwart Democrat Jon Ossoff in the race for Georgia’s 6th District, becoming the first outside group to wade into the race in a major way.
“We came in really early,” he said, “and we rang the bell.”
The group’s ads triggered a wave of attention - positive and negative. But the CLF ground-game is what’s being widely credited with helping to offset Ossoff’s vaunted get-out-the-vote machine: About 260,000 voters cast ballots in the special election, an eye-popping total that powered Handel to a 4-point win.
As Ossoff gained traction, Bliss shifted two field operatives from an Iowa district to Georgia and directed them to hunker down.
In the first-round of voting, CLF sent 100 staffers to crisscross the 6th to target 100,000 of the most likely Republican voters. The group shifted its strategy for the runoff phase, honing its message for two distinct blocs.
The first was an effort to mobilize 38,000 voters who had cast ballots in last year’s GOP presidential primary but not in April’s vote. The second was an appeal to about 100,000 “soft” Republicans – likely GOP voters who often skipped elections – to cast their ballots early.
“We were never going to match on Ossoff on TV. Nor did we need to,” said Bliss. “We concluded that the best use of our dollars would be running a highly-targeted ground game.”
A sign that the CLF isn’t letting up: Bliss said the super PAC is keeping its office in the 6th District open through November 2018.
The results in Georgia appear to have validated Bliss’ unconventional approach. While super PACs rarely invest in field programs, CLF poured more than $2 million into the one in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a risky strategy that allowed Democrats to outspend Republicans on television.
“The traditional mindset is: You can’t be outspent on TV,” Bliss says. “We made the determination that was not necessary to win and that we could be more impactful doing data and field work.”
One example: In liberal DeKalb County, CLF targeted 8,100 voters whom it had identified as "reluctant Republicans" and saw a marginal shift in Handel’s direction as a result. Overall, while Democratic turnout in the district was high, Republican turnout was even higher.