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Inside the Ryan-backed super PAC trying to keep the House

As Steve Bannon muses about a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, Corry Bliss's young army of GOP activists are engaged in a diametrically different mission -- knocking on doors in the nation's most competitive districts to lock down the party's control of the US House in 2018.

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Maeve Reston (CNN)
BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA (CNN) — As Steve Bannon muses about a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, Corry Bliss's young army of GOP activists are engaged in a diametrically different mission -- knocking on doors in the nation's most competitive districts to lock down the party's control of the US House in 2018.

Bliss heads the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He is trying to upend the traditional super PAC model by plowing money into a hyper-targeted field program run out of 30 offices nationwide, like the one he set up here in the district of Republican Rep. David Valadao, which Hillary Clinton carried by 15 points last year.

The political climate is challenging for Republicans right now. Beyond Bannon's threats of taking on the GOP establishment, President Donald Trump's approval rating is stuck in the mid to high 30s, creating a potential drag on Republicans across the country. The anti-Trump energy is crackling among Democrats, who believe they can ride the swell of anger to a wave election. Historical patterns show that the party in control of Congress almost always loses seats in the first midterm following a presidential election, a fact readily acknowledged by Bliss.

"History says we're going to lose the House," said Bliss.

So he's experimenting with his new model to try to defy that history.

"The old model is that I raise as much money as I possibly can raise. I save it all and then I spend it all on TV ads the last five weeks before the election," Bliss said. "I fundamentally think the old model is lazy and stale, and doesn't work."

Bliss's theory of the election is this: Control of the House will be decided by a universe of 50,000 voters in these 30 closely-contested districts. CLF has identified those voters and is collecting data on the local issues most important to them. Once they have that nailed down, they plan to have "a meaningful conversation" until Election Day to explain what their incumbent congressman is doing to help constituents with those issues.

He proved the efficacy of that approach in the special elections earlier this year as well as in Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's 2016 re-election race. In an early 2015 data study in Toledo, Portman's campaign determined that the harmful effects of the algae bloom in Lake Erie was a top issue for about 200,000 voters. For the ensuing year and a half, they door-knocked, made phone calls and targeted those voters online and by mail with detailed information explaining what Portman was doing to help combat the algae bloom.

The campaign even cut a TV ad about algae blooms featuring Portman in a fishing boat on Lake Erie. On Election Day, Bliss says, Portman's margin of victory was double that of Clinton within that subset of voters.

"When those voters thought of Rob Portman, they thought, "he's the king of the algae bloom. He cares about what I care about,'" Bliss said.

That's the kind of message that CLF is trying to get across here in the outskirts of Bakersfield. Here, the group is focusing on water scarcity issues that have persisted for decades in the Central Valley.

On paper, Democrats would appear to have an advantage here in California's 21st congressional district. It is about 75% Latino and Democrats have a 17-point registration advantage. But Valadao, who speaks Portuguese and Spanish, has proved difficult to dispatch.

As the son of an immigrant father who started a dairy farm after moving here from Portugal's Azores Islands, Valadao, who is 40, is steeped in the region's water issues. While Democratic super PACs intend to shower money on his district to draw attention to his vote for the Republican health care bill and the thousands who would have lost coverage, Valadao and his allies are trying to steer the conversation back to water.

Door knocking

The Congressional Leadership Fund's youthful door-knockers, many of whom were recruited from the local Christian and public high schools, are well-versed in these issues because many of them come from families linked to farming or the secondary industries that support it.

Their ability to get people to answer the door is impressive. Voters seem more willing to engage with high school students than middle-aged volunteers. Bliss views the intern system as a training program for the next generation of Republican activists.

On a recent afternoon, CLF's interns fanned out across middle class neighborhoods where Spanish-language radio sometimes blared from open garages. Many of the people who came to the door spoke Spanish. Some expressed concern about Trump's vows to crack down on undocumented immigrants -- an issue where Valadao has disagreed with the harsh tone of the President -- but said they were open to supporting the Republican congressman.

In the minute-long survey, the doorknockers use their iPhones to record what the voters think of Trump and whether they are familiar with water legislation that Valadao has backed in the Senate. They leave the voters with literature listing the water bills he's championed.

"A lot of people offer plans to fix the water supply" at the door, said an 18-year-old CLF intern named Austin Gaines. He recounted how one man sent him away because he was in the middle of cooking eggs, but then ran outside as Austin was leaving the block to engage him in a 40-minute conversation.

A 16-year-old CLF intern named Jessica Stump, who goes door to door to these Republican and independent households several days a week, said the question about whether voters approve of Trump gets mixed results.

"A lot of times they say 'I don't know. We'll have to see,'" she said. Sometimes they offer suggestions, like taking his Twitter account away from him, Stump said.

Valadao knows he has to strike a tenuous balance here in a district full of ticket-splitters, and he often explains to voters that he doesn't agree with Trump on everything -- namely immigration. (He has signed on to a Democratic bill to help young undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at an early age by their parents. He has also pursued a more expansive guest worker program that would help dairies and other agricultural operators here bring in more skilled workers for year-round labor.)

But the quest to bring more water to the Central Valley for agriculture, in particular, has helped Valadao gain his foothold here.

The fight has been going on for generations, and it was aggravated by California's sustained drought. In a telephone interview, Valadao said it remained the top issue for his constituents, and he fears things will get worse if Democrats take control of Congress.

"Obviously the (national) Democratic Party has been the exact opposite of what our district wants on water," Valadao said, noting that some local Democrats have been supportive of his efforts. "The first priority is helping cities that are running out of water, farmers that are running out of water."

"Anyone who says that the drought is over, as if it's never coming back, obviously has no understanding that this is the way it's always been," Valadao said. "We will have more dry years coming up and if we don't plan for that, if we don't adjust and fix the issues that we've got, we're just going to be right back talking about the same issues."

Signs along the highway here have marked the "Congress Created Dust Bowl" for years. During the Obama years, Republicans excoriated Democrats for the environmental regulations that limited water deliveries to the Central Valley as part of protections for the endangered small fish known as the Delta Smelt.

The potency of the issue, said California GOP Chair Jim Brulte, has helped Valadao in all of his re-election campaigns. "When you look at what the left does with water policy, it's a direct hit, not just the people who live here, but the people who work here," Brulte said.

The Democrats, Brulte charged, "are more interested in taking care of bait fish. ... That's why you have David Valadao, a Republican, in a district that Clinton carried by 15 points."

The greater danger to Valadao are Democrats' efforts to link him to Trump's aggressive immigration rhetoric. One of the door hangers put out by CLF touts Valadao's success helping his family build their dairy farm, and his desire to fix "our broken immigration system."

His most formidable challenger so far is Emilio Huerta, the son of labor rights leader Dolores Huerta. Valadao defeated him last cycle with nearly 57% of the vote. Valadao has far outpaced Huerta so far in fundraising. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, along with other left-leaning groups, is actively recruiting other potential Democratic challengers.

Bannon vs. Bliss?

In his effort to protect the House majority, Bliss has opened 20 offices in districts won by Clinton in 2016 that are held by Republicans. Bliss estimates that CLF will spend about $100 million by Election Day. The group's volunteers have knocked on nearly 3 million doors across the country at a time when many of the candidates aren't even organized yet.

Given that some of their candidates have swing-district tendencies and have bucked Trump on issues like immigration, CLF's primary effort may ultimately collide with Bannon's "season of war against a GOP establishment."

It is still unclear how much money and organization is behind Bannon's effort and whether he will focus much on the House. Losing that chamber, many Republicans worry, could lead to impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Bannon is on a western swing this week that ends at the California GOP convention in Anaheim where he will have ample time to meet with potential candidates. He did not respond to queries about whether he is recruiting candidates in the Golden State.

CLF intends to support their chosen candidates in their primary races, no matter which political party attacks them.

"The 20 field offices we've opened are a public sign that CLF is committed to ensuring those 20 members of Congress are re-elected," Bliss said, when asked about some of Bannon's recent comments about his agenda. "Those offices will remain open regardless of who criticizes or runs against our incumbents."

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