The refrain from Ohio State Senator Nina Turner’s campaign manager was familiar — one that all candidates embrace, if warily, over the course of a race.
“Call time, call time, call time,” repeated Turner, seated across a desk at state party offices a few blocks away from the Columbus, Ohio, Statehouse, as the two reviewed her campaign schedule for the next day.
For Turner, a Democrat challenging a well-funded Republican incumbent for Ohio secretary of state, call time -- campaign shorthand for fundraising -- is a crucial element in a state where political advertising isn’t cheap.
Yet this year, national Democrats laying the groundwork for their 2016 presidential candidate are working to ensure Turner won’t be on her own as she tries to pull in millions of dollars needed to make up the seven-to-one cash disadvantage she faced against incumbent Jon Husted at the end of January.
Turner’s race is one of a handful of secretary of state contests drawing attention from the Democratic National Committee and two outside groups sending money, organizing infrastructure and the vaunted digital expertise of President Barack Obama’s campaigns to boost state-level candidates.
The central issue for Democrats is voting laws — a matter that has become increasingly divisive in recent years amid a state-level push by Republican legislatures to make changes across the country. All involved, to varying degrees, point to what may be the ultimate goal of this year’s effort: Putting friendly faces in these key offices which administer elections in advance of the 2016 presidential election.
Turner, who represents Cleveland in the state Senate, said she understands why the party cares so much about her race, calling Ohio “the swing state of swing states.”
“A secretary of state can make or break the environment of voting — they can use the tools at their disposal,” Turner said. “So we need somebody who is a fair operator.”
Pratt Wiley, a former corporate lawyer and Obama campaign veteran who is directing the DNC’s Voter Expansion Project, put it more plainly. “These are the folks that control the levers for elections,” Wiley said in an interview at DNC Washington headquarters. When it comes to a presidential election, “secretaries of state can make all the difference.”
In the near-term, the effort underlines a fact gnawing at Democrats facing elections this year: Voter enthusiasm is a problem. Voter turnout among a coalition crucial to the party’s recent victories -- young people, minorities and women -- historically declines in midterm elections.
“Our voters are younger, more unmarried women, more African-American and Latino voters,” Obama said at an April 9 event in Houston. “They get excited about general elections; they don’t get as excited about midterm elections.”
A March CBS News poll found that 81 percent of Republicans say they are definitely going to vote in the midterm elections. Only 68 percent of Democrats said the same. The poll found only 58 percent of Democrats enthusiastic about voting in the election — 12 points fewer than Republicans. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Behind the party’s push in secretary of state races is an issue Democrats say strikes a chord with their voters. A slew of Republican-backed changes to state voting laws and rules around the country have drawn the ire of Democrats who see the measures as a deliberate effort to suppress votes, particularly among minority voters.
Republicans counter that laws requiring identification at the polls or cutting down on early voting hours are designed to root out fraud and streamline state and county operations.
“We’re focused in Ohio on making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Husted said in an interview.
Husted is one of Jeremy Bird’s top targets. Bird, national field director of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and director of Obama’s Ohio efforts in 2008, knows the state well. His 270 Strategies firm is backing iVote, a project he says can have an impact in Turner’s race, as well as the three others he is targeting if they can bring in the resources.
“You don’t have to have a ton of money to have an impact, but you need to have enough in each of these states where you’re putting significant resources, six figures, into each of these states so you can really talk to voters and get the message out,” Bird said in an interview in Chicago.
Bird faces a daunting fundraising task. National party donors are looking at a competitive U.S. Senate playing field that Republicans have expanded in recent months, an effect of lagging approval numbers for Obama and questions about the effectiveness and reach of the administration’s health care.
Republicans must flip six Senate seats to their party to take a majority and are targeting as many as a dozen races to reach that goal. With the Republican-led House unlikely to change hands, the Senate has become a focus for Democrats who point to a Republican-controlled Congress as a death-knell to Obama’s final two years in office.
“There is no question that the secretaries of state who are elected in 2014 will have a massive impact on the presidential race in 2016, so people who really care about Hillary Clinton, who believe in her candidacy or potential candidacy in 2016, care about these races,” said Bird, whose group is also targeting races in Colorado, Nevada and Iowa.
Singling out the “Obama and Clinton staffers” targeting Husted, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges in March called on donors to push back.
“They want to create an election system that is set up for Hillary Clinton’s partisan advantage in 2016!” Borges said in an e-mail fundraising appeal.
For Bird, whose firm has also signed on to build the national field operation for Ready for Hillary, the super political action committee trying to persuade the former secretary of state to run for president in 2016, the Republican response means the outside effort is having an impact.
Former President Bill Clinton announced the start of the DNC project in a committee-commissioned YouTube video. Vice President Joe Biden followed with one of his own. Clinton also will headline the Ohio Democratic Party’s state dinner in June.
Yet whether this can become a major driver for voter turnout remains an open question.
Turner, who has gained a national following in her party largely due to her numerous MSNBC appearances to talk about voting rights in the state, said the issue did create “a buzz” in the lead-up to the last election that helped drive turnout in her community. Her ability to replicate that may be the deciding factor in whether her campaign —- and the national party’s work behind it —- is successful.
“This is certainly going to be a turnout election,” Turner said. “It is vitally important to get our voters out.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Phil Mattingly in Columbus, Ohio at firstname.lastname@example.org