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Republicans are trailing Democrats across Colorado. They hope to gain ground with their ground game.

Democrats have rerouted their volunteers and resources toward expanding phone banks and digital ad spending to reach voters in other ways. The GOP thinks that won’t be enough.

From left: Suzanne Staiert, a Republican who is running for state Senate, and Caroline Cornell, a Republican candidate for the Colorado House, speak to volunteers ahead of a door-knocking mission in Aurora on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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AURORA — One Saturday morning this month, a few dozen volunteers gathered in the mostly empty parking lot at Smoky Hill Library to knock on voters’ doors in support of two Republican legislative candidates.

Suzanne Staeirt, who is running for a hotly contested state Senate seat, told the group before they headed out that they should leave candidate literature under doormats and then ring doorbells to avoid getting too close to voters.

“That way,” she said, “when the voter comes, you don’t have to have that kind-of awkward handoff of the literature.”

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The volunteers, holding candidate pamphlets, wearing masks and using a smartphone application to determine which homes to target, nodded along to the instructions. 

“(We’re) just making sure we keep everybody healthy and safe,” Caroline Cornell, who is trying to unseat a Democratic state representative, said before sending the cadre of canvassers — young and old — into the surrounding suburban neighborhoods of southeastern Aurora. 

Republican candidates up and down the ballot in Colorado are trailing their Democratic counterparts. To put it bluntly: The outlook for the GOP is grim, according to polling and interviews with political operatives. Colorado conservatives — if nothing changes — are poised on Nov. 3 to lose the presidential vote and the marquee U.S. Senate race and remain in the minority at the state Capitol. 

One possible advantage the GOP sees heading into the home stretch is a willingness to continue the ground game — the one-on-one conversations between voters and campaigns in front yards and on porches. Unlike most Democratic candidates, Republicans are continuing to canvass despite the public health risks related to the coronavirus. And they’re boasting of unusual success at reaching voters who want to talk about the issues of the day, hypothesizing that people have been stuck inside because of the pandemic for so long that they are excited to have conversations about what’s on their mind.

“Some people are going to keep their (glass) doors closed because they are concerned and they want to have that physical barrier,” said Cornell, who is running for a Colorado House seat, but she has found that generally people are happy to come outside and have a conversation.

From left: Suzanne Staiert, a Republican who is running for state Senate, Kristi Burton Brown, vice chairman of the Colorado GOP, and Caroline Cornell, a Republican candidate for the Colorado House, wait to talk to a voter at a home in Aurora on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The day Staiert and Cornwell went canvassing, one  woman grabbed a mask from her car before engaging in a discussion about reopening schools during coronavirus. Another pressed the candidates on their abortion stance from her porch, asking them to leave their campaign flyers on the lawn.

For the most part, Democratic campaigns have decided that knocking on voters’ doors and in-person conversations are too risky. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign isn’t doing it. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s U.S. Senate campaign isn’t doing it. Most legislative candidates aren’t doing it, either. 

Democrats have rerouted their volunteers and resources to reach voters in other ways, expanding phone banks and spending more on digital advertising. 

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“There are other ways to listen to voters that are just as effective as door knocking but don’t involve the risk of potentially killing them,” said state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat in a battleground seat. 

But the GOP says its candidates and volunteers are being safe, and that no amount of digital or telephonic voter outreach can replace in-person interaction with voters, a strategy that appears to be backed up in research. And the party is hopeful that in tight races, face-to-face election-year conversations about issues may be able to put them over the top, even if those interactions are happening through masks from 6 feet away. 

“The Dems will outspend the Republicans and always have when it comes to local races and legislative races,” said U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who is also chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “They have the money to do that. We have the shoeleather to outwork them.”

Buck criticized Hickenlooper for not getting out to interact with voters more. “I have to tell you, I think Colorado voters expect to see candidates run strong campaigns,” he said. 

Hickenlooper has held in-person events across Colorado, but only a limited number of people are invited to attend to limit the potential spread of coronavirus. Instead, his campaign has relied more on Zoom gatherings with invited attendees. 

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to Democrats phone banking on his behalf on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Screenshot)

Gardner has been more visible on the in-person campaign trail, but he also keeps his events small. He has held a number of virtual gatherings. And his campaign is relying on the same Republican Party door-knocking network — as well as similar efforts from conservative groups — across Colorado.

The act of campaigning is even a campaign issue. In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, Republican Lauren Boebert has been holding in-person events and slamming her Democratic opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush, for not getting out more. Boebert has even started calling her rival “basement Bush.”

Even President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has been rallying in-person volunteers in Colorado to get the word out in support of the president. In late August at an outdoor event in Denver, where few people were wearing masks and almost no one was social distancing, Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump campaign, urged the few dozen gathered to talk to their communities about why they should vote to reelect Trump.

“You are our best soldiers. You are more powerful than any ad I can make in Washington, D.C., because people trust you,” Lotter said. “You live among them. You speak the same language as your neighbors.”

John Pence, senior advisor to the Trump campaign, speaks to Republicans in Denver in August 2020. There was little mask-wearing or social distancing at the event, which was aimed at firing up volunteers and encouraging them to use their networks to help elect GOP candidates. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Republicans say they are urging door-knocking volunteers who feel they may have been exposed to coronavirus to get tested before resuming their canvassing. Asked if any GOP door-knockers have contracted COVID-19, Colorado GOP spokesman Joe Jackson said: “I can’t publicly discuss any medical records from our team.”

Similar debates about in-person campaigning and campaign events are playing out across the nation. In other states, Democrats have expressed concern that Zoom rallies won’t be enough to turn out voters while Republicans move forward with their in-person gatherings.

But liberals in Colorado feel that they are at such an advantage that not having campaign field operations won’t really make a difference. 

“Field is a tactic that, generally speaking, is used to flip over close races,” said Ian Silverii, who leads the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado and has a history of working on campaigns. “If a race is going to be within 3 to 5 points and one campaign has a giant field operation and the other doesn’t, field can make the difference.”

He pointed to the 2010, 2012 and 2018 election cycles in Colorado as examples of where Democrats were able to benefit from door knocking. But, he said, Colorado’s presidential and Senate races, according to polls, are not as close as previous contests were. Some legislative races appear to be tighter, but Democrats and their allies are still working to reach voters in districts where door-knocking isn’t happening.

“Progressive organizations aren’t just leaving voters alone this year. We’re texting (the crap) out of them. We’re calling (the crap) out of them. We’re making more contacts and contact attempts than we ever have before,” Silverii said. “They’re just not on the doors. Response rates to both texts and phone calls are through the roof. People are sitting around kind of bored. They’re a lot more likely to answer a random number, they’re a lot more likely to engage with somebody who is texting them or calling them about politics. They’re looking for human interaction.”

Ernesto Apreza, Colorado state director for Biden’s campaign, said his staff and volunteers aren’t knocking on doors because it’s not worth the health risk. They’ve been able to shift those workers toward other voter-contact duties, and so far have had millions of interactions in the state.

”We have found phone calls and text messages to be incredibly effective,” Apreza said.

Democrats gather ahead of a phone bank on behalf of Joe Biden and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Screenshot)

On one recent afternoon, volunteer Glennda Lacey called unaffiliated voters as part of Democratic phone bank. She had some difficulty getting people to pick up — and endured a technical glitch with the call system — but she was able to reach a handful of voters who pledged to support Biden and Hickenlooper during brief conversations. 

“I just want to get it over with,” one woman who picked up said of casting her ballot.

Lacey said she’s been able to have as many as 60 phone conversations with voters in a two-hour span. She’s noticed the number of volunteers making calls alongside her steadily growing in recent weeks.

“When I first started doing this, there were three or four of us,” said Lacey, a 73-year-old retiree who lives in Central City. “It kept growing and growing. Now, every time I’ve been on there’s been close to 40 people.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and former community organizer, knows the value of in-person interaction. But she says Zoom events with voters have a plus in that they allow for longer interactions. 

“I’ve done dozens if not hundreds of these field trainings on how to knock doors and have a  conversation,” she said. “We train folks to have a shorter, three-to-five minute conversation about whatever the issues are. The positive of these Zoom events is we are able to delve more deeply into an issue, which I think people, in this moment, are really hungry for.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, who is in a difficult reelection battle, is one Democrat unwilling to cede door-knocking to Republicans. She has the bruises and chipped teeth to prove it. Zenzinger was recently attacked by a dog while visiting homes, which landed her in the hospital. “The two hardest votes I’ve ever earned,” she joked. 

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. (Handout)

But in all seriousness, Zenzinger has found the conversations she’s had with voters at their doors crucial. At first, she and her team were worried about the reception they would receive. But she’s been pleasantly surprised.

“The conversations at the doors have been so much better this year,” she said. “First of all, more people are home. I think they have a lot to talk about. They have a lot on their minds.” 

She carries hand sanitizer with her whenever she’s out canvassing and has put in place a contact-tracing system just in case. 

“I’ve not had a single person — not one person — get angry or upset with me by being at their door,” she said. “And we’ve knocked on 10,704 doors.”

Rising Sun