GOP Struggles to Figure Out Voter File Future

by Stuart Rothenberg March 30, 2011 · 10:11 AM EDT

Quietly so far, a power struggle is now under way for control of one of the Republican National Committee’s most valuable assets: its voter file.

The file, which has been built at the cost of many millions of dollars over many years by state Republican parties and by the national committee, is currently housed in the RNC’s Strategy Division, along with Voter Vault, the software that is necessary to use the list.

Multiple Republican sources said that a number of prominent GOP strategists and operatives are trying to persuade the RNC’s leadership to end the party’s monopoly of the list by creating an arrangement whereby a new, non-party group could have access to the list in exchange for improving it.

Among those Republicans said to be pushing for the move are former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, former White House Political Director Karl Rove and Barry Jackson, a top aide to Speaker John Boehner (Ohio).

Duncan, who is chairman of the board of American Crossroads, one of the non-party groups credited with helping Republicans win the House last year, adamantly opposed the move when he chaired the RNC but now favors it. Rove is also heavily involved in American Crossroads.

Numerous former RNC staffers described the voter file as the committee’s “greatest asset” and argued that by giving up control of the file, which the RNC shares with state parties, the committee would be agreeing to diminish its power dramatically.

Others downplayed the risk, arguing that the RNC must never and will never “give up the list” but can allow private entities access to it. The more the list is used, they argued, the more it would be “refreshed.” And, they added, only the parties can pay for federal get-out-the-vote efforts, thereby guaranteeing the RNC an important role in campaigns.

They also argued that safeguards could be included in any agreement to guarantee that the list couldn’t be used by non-party groups in a GOP primary battle, a potentially divisive development.

Fundamentally, the argument for allowing a non-party group to have a role in accessing — or even maintaining — the RNC list is based on the Democrats’ experience, as well as on changes to the campaign finance system that began with Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s and has picked up steam with McCain-Feingold in the 1990s and the recent Citizens United decision.

The legislation and court rulings have combined to limit what parties and candidates can do financially while empowering interest groups and corporations to do many of the things that the parties once did.

Outside groups — which include 501 (c)(4) organizations, 527s and independent expenditure political action committees (sometimes called “super PACs”) — can accept contributions that are prohibited under Federal Election Commission rules, making it easier for the non-party groups to raise resources to spend on political activities that don’t call for the election or defeat of a particular candidate. (The two national gubernatorial committees also operate outside of federal campaign limits.)

“The national parties will always represent the brand,” one savvy party insider said, “but in terms of campaign tactics, there will be a rapid dilution of the national parties’ impact.”

According to the respected Campaign Finance Institute, non-party independent expenditure spending in House and Senate contests surpassed party independent expenditures for the first time in 2010. The National Republican Congressional Committee, for example, spent just more than $50 million through its IE for GOP House candidates, while combined non-party IEs for those House Republican hopefuls hit $86 million.

While the RNC has traditionally had the responsibility of building and maintaining its voter database (including the current software, Voter Vault 3), on the Democratic side that function has been absorbed by a corporate entity, Catalist. According to its website, Catalist “provides data and related services to progressive advocacy and not-for-profit organizations, campaigns consultants and academics.”

The Catalist database was originally developed from the work of Americans Coming Together, a non-party pro-Democratic group.

True, the Democratic National Committee has its own database, referred to variously as Demzilla and VoteBuilder, built just prior to the 2004 elections. But most non-party groups rely on Catalist. Another private firm, NGP VAN (recently created by the merger of two firms, including the Voter Activation Network), provides the software interface for both Catalist and VoteBuilder data.

It’s ironic that some Republicans want to imitate the Democrats when it comes to handling the party’s voter file, since some Democrats think they must follow the GOP’s example when it comes to non-party independent expenditure advertising.

The success of “outside” groups sympathetic to the GOP, including American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS, Club for Growth, Americans for Job Security, American Action Network, American Future Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has Democrats scrambling to imitate the development on the right.

A new Democratic group, American Majority, hopes to become a counter-weight to some of the non-party conservative groups. Among its driving forces are former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) chief of staff Susan McCue, former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director J.B. Poersch, veteran political operative Monica Dixon and campaign guru Jim Jordan.

Observers see non-federal party groups taking over many responsibilities for which the parties were entirely responsible, from polling and opposition research to training and database management. That would leave the parties with only a couple of core missions. And it is why some see the GOP’s decision over its voter file as such a high-stakes struggle.