Sen. Ron JohnsonBloomberg AFP/Getty

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

The election is more than a year away, but Sen. Ron Johnson’s reelection campaign in Democratic-leaning Wisconsin already faces stiff headwinds and, according to one recent reputable survey, a double-digit polling deficit against Russ Feingold, the former senator who lost his seat to Johnson in the 2010 Republican wave.

But top officials with Johnson’s campaign are confident they can make up the gap with the help of a secret weapon—one they inherited from Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin governor, working in conjunction with the Republican Party of Wisconsin, built a formidable political machine on the way to winning three statewide elections from 2010 to 2014. And instead of scuttling the operation after Walker won his second term last year, he decided to hand over control of it—including meticulously built volunteer lists and highly prized profiles of the Wisconsin electorate—to Johnson.

Even for campaigns inside the same party, Walker’s gesture showed an unusual degree of cooperation. Johnson and Walker officials alike say it gives the senator a significant head start on building his own political infrastructure. They hope it allows Johnson to build on the governor’s successes winning a blue state and translate it to a presidential-election year when Johnson needs every last bit of help to tilt the Senate race back in his favor.

“That operation has just flipped over to Ron Johnson,” said Betsy Ankney, Johnson’s campaign manager. “It’s not like they shut everything down after ’14 and said, ‘All right, everybody, good work; we’ll see you in a year and a half.’”

“This is truly a situation where Ron Johnson inherited the strength and resources of the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Scott Walker,” said Joe Fadness, former executive director of the Wisconsin GOP. “The jerseys are already on,” he added, referring to the state’s Republican volunteers.

Not one week after Election Day 2014, Republican Party of Wisconsin officials met with members of the Johnson campaign to discuss the transition. By January, the party had six offices staffed up across the state, bent on maintaining the network of staffers and volunteers who had amassed to power Walker’s ground game months before in a close, nationally watched race.

Speed was important, Republican officials said, not only to give Johnson a jump-start on the Democrats but also to maintain and refocus the enthusiasm of Walker volunteers instead of allowing it to dissipate during a political off-year. Already, they say, those volunteers have been hard at work drumming up support for Johnson at a time when many campaigns might just be assembling their teams.

But the Walker campaign’s most important contribution might have been its voter database. Walker’s operation built its own in-house database that assembled information gathered during his 2010 gubernatorial race and subsequent recall, and reams of consumer data purchased by the campaign.

In the end, Walker’s campaign had added an additional 800,000 data points, according to one senior GOP official, including information gained from individual voter contacts that automatically updated models of the Wisconsin electorate.

Seeing how voters were reacting in real time paid dividends for the campaign, said Matthew Oczkowski, the chief digital officer for Walker’s 2014 race, because it let campaign strategists adjust quickly to new developments.  In one case, when Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Walker “has given women the back of his hand” during a campaign stop in Milwaukee, the campaign saw the negative effect it had on female voters.  

Without the models built off that database, the campaign would have had to rely on polls that can take days to show results—or the gut feeling of a campaign strategist.

It also gave the Walker campaign insights on which voters it ran weakest with—including some intelligence that defied conventional wisdom. The campaign realized, Oczkowski said, that it was performing well in the Fox River Valley, a traditional Wisconsin battleground that runs through the central and eastern part of the state. It was struggling, however, with small-town voters who had once been strong Walker supporters but thought the governor’s tone in his reelection campaign had been too harsh.

“We started to learn quickly that it wasn’t so much these traditional battlegrounds that we were losing, but we were losing a lot of folks in small towns,” Oczkowski said. “… Those are the kind of folks you have to win to make up the numbers you lose in the city of Milwaukee and city of Madison. Once we got back to basics, and got the governor direct-to-camera talking about issues that matter most in rural communities, we started to bring those folks back.”

Ultimately, the data proved accurate. Oczkowski said the campaign’s results projection three weeks before Election Day missed the margin of victory by just four-tenths of a percentage point.

Certainly, recent elections are replete with ill-fated claims that a campaign has found the formula that can change the course of an election. Last year, Senate Democrats touted their “Bannock Street Project,” a multimillion-dollar, data-heavy effort that was supposed to help reshape the electorate in a handful of key battlegrounds. Boastful talk of the operation all but ceased after the party lost nine Senate seats last year.

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party said Republicans are not alone in taking advantage of resources from recent campaigns. Feingold’s campaign, for instance, has inherited voter files built and used when Sen. Tammy Baldwin knocked off former Gov. Tommy Thompson in the 2012 election.

For all the talk from Republicans, Democrats are skeptical that after so many tough fights, either party can claim to possess a superior political machine.

“Wisconsin has had a lot of electoral fights in the last six years,” said Mike Tate, former chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “It is a mistake for any side to imply any state party apparatus has a significant advantage over the other. Because they’re both pretty battle tested.”

Walker won, Tate added, because the fundamentals of his races were favorable—not because of a stronger-than-average political operation.

“Scott Walker did not win reelection in 2014 because of some advantage that he or the Republican Party had in terms of data, or turnout mechanism, or ability try to reach voters online, or through some sort of secret sauce,” Tate said. “They won because it was a wave year and it’s very difficult to unseat an incumbent governor.”

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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