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By Daniel Rothberg, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Republican Party’s congressional campaign wing said Tuesday that a hotly contested special election in Florida is serving as a laboratory for testing messages and tactics for the 2014 midterm races.

During a news conference, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the National Republican Congressional Committee is working to improve the breadth and depth of its voter database, and that the committee will keep tabs on how its digital strategy plays out in Florida.

The NRCC has made significant investments to bridge what Walden said is a gap between the digital campaign capabilities of Democratic and Republican operations.

“We realize this is not brain surgery or rocket (science),” Walden said. “It’s computer science. And so we can get there, and we are getting there.”

With eight full-time staffers, Walden said the NRCC had the largest data team in Republican politics at the start of the year and is making “progress” in bolstering its online operation.

Walden also pointed to a shift toward more sophisticated uses of data that will allow campaigns to hone tactics and voter contact. Talking about the party’s data stores, Walden said Republicans have long had “a huge water tank on the hill” but that it was never fully exploited.

He said that by sharing more detailed information with campaigns, such as demographic data, those operations are able to view the race through a wider lens. Campaigns with the improved data can, for example, use it to predict different turnout scenarios, rather than focusing solely on the overall number of votes they need, he said.

“They can then manipulate the numbers to say, ‘OK, what if I only get X of this? What does that mean in terms of Y of that,'” he said.

Although campaigns will focus primarily on local issues within each district, Walden said, the national context can’t be ignored, including President Barack Obama’s relatively low approval rating and what he said was Obamacare’s unpopularity. Though it won’t be the only issue in 2014, Walden said, Obamacare will be an “underlying issue” in every race.

Throughout his remarks, Walden drew comparisons with the 2006 midterm election in which Democrats took control of the House of Representatives amid growing discontent with President George W. Bush and disapproval of the war in Iraq.

In 2013, Walden said, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s fundraising outdid the NRCC’s effort by $15 million, a gap he attributed to the DCCC’s robust online presence and several events featuring the president, always a guaranteed fundraising boon.

But Walden defended the NRCC’s fundraising record, touting 2013 as a strong year, with contributions up 11 percent from 2011 and an increase in small and individual donors. The committee came in under budget and over revenue, he said.

Photo: The Rachel Maddow Show via Flickr

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