In a warehouse-like second-floor office about 15 miles away from where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was lighting up the crowd at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a group of political operatives monitored the speech on their computers. Then, in response to a question from an audience member, Walker delivered the kind of sentence they'd been waiting for.
“Did he just liken…” one started to ask slowly.
“He just compared union protesters to ISIS,” said another, completing the thought of the first.
“Actually, he just compared the hard-working people of Wisconsin to ISIS,” came the more politically massaged response.
“That's pretty terrible.” And with that, they were off. In the world of opposition research these days, speed is of the essence, and the 20- and 30-something Democrats who make up most of American Bridge’s operation were ready to kick into high gear.
They knew the drill. First they’d hit Twitter. Then they’d get a clip of the video link and send that out. Photos of union workers would follow, along with an e-mail blast to their extensive list of political reporters. Within an hour, the group’s Twitter account was trending in Washington. The headlines about Walker’s comments soon followed. Mission accomplished.
Over the past two election cycles, opposition research has gone from a secretive and murky fixture of the political underworld to a permanent, well-funded and surprisingly transparent part of the campaign infrastructure for both national parties. America Rising, the leading Republican group, took American Bridge's 2012 playbook and sought to match it, and then expand on it, in 2014, with no shortage of success. Video cameras follow candidates (or potential candidates) everywhere. Research departments dig into every aspect of a possible opponent's past. Communications and digital teams work nonstop to push out their findings—both the clearly damning that will light up the national media and the information that may pique the interest of an intrepid (or partisan) reporter or two—on a 24/7 basis.
CPAC, the conservative gathering that draws the biggest names in the Republican Party to the same cavernous convention center in National Harbor, Md., presents what is known as a target-rich environment. “I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the Super Bowl, but it's our first round of the NCAA tournament,” said Brad Woodhouse, a longtime Democratic operative who serves as president of the group, which functions as a super-PAC.
More than 600 days from Election Day may seem early for the group to be revved up to this degree, but in truth, they never really stopped. A month after the midterm elections, a 130-page “2016 Scouting Report” laying out research on 19 potential candidates landed in the mailboxes of political reporters around the country.
The books were just the latest in a seemingly never-ending ending array of “products” pushed out by the group—from graphics and gifs to a full website targeting Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who donate heavily to Republican causes. While uncovering a damaging lawsuit, damning video clip, or plagiarized graduate thesis may still be the gold standard, “oppo” is now considered just as important in the day-to-day battles playing out. The idea is to get their view into the bloodstream, no matter the medium or, at times, if the issue is even going to gain major traction.
“Narratives, especially in this world where Twitter and social media are important, start to get hardened very, very fast, speed is vitally important,” Woodhouse says. Still, he adds, “We have a lot of things that we move that the press doesn't have any interest in—we move them because we want to get it into the ether and see if it has a life.”
The group was formed in 2010 by David Brock, the former Clinton tormentor who underwent a spectacular apostasy, becoming a major liberal player with close ties to the Clinton family. The group's war room sits a few floors below the offices of Media Matters, Brock's left-leaning watchdog group, and shares resources, staff, and strategy with Correct the Record, the group started by Brock to defend former Secretary of State (and very likely 2016 presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton from Republican attacks.
But if the Clinton group operates as a type of defensive coordinator, working day in and day out keep Republicans from scoring political points against the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016, American Bridge is running a spread offense of sorts. They move fast, are relentless in their attacks, and are looking to score hits against Republicans.
Case in point: as news broke that Clinton exclusively used a private e-mail account during her time at the State Department, Correct the Record went into full protection mode. American Bridge, on the other hand, immediately submitted an open records request to the state of Florida for previously unreleased e-mails from former Governor Jeb Bush, a likely GOP candidate.
It's also a posture that translates to a loose vibe inside the office—one punctuated by a life-sized cutout of Vice President Joe Biden in one corner and a calendar of cats underneath one of the flat-screen TVs at the front of the office. (It's an office once described as resembling an “Urban Outfitters without the clothes.” No argument there.)
The group's budget was nearly $18 million in the 2014 election cycle, a number the group expects to eclipse during the 2016 cycle as they fan out to keep track of Senate, House, governor and, of course, presidential candidates. Already this year, video trackers for the group have logged more than 100,000 miles traveled and hit more than 700 events. All that work is funneled back into “The Vault,” the home of nearly 10,000 hours of footage from 425 catalogued targets. It's a resource, Woodhouse says, not only for this cycle or even the next, but also for four or five elections from now.
For Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Walker, who has faced three tough campaigns in the last four years, there are already voluminous files of research and video clips. Asked if a week or two of bad stories about Christie would lead the group to pull off of him, the partisan brawler in Woodhouse made a quick appearance.
“We're not going to pull resources from Christie, we want to kill him dead,” he said.
But it's Walker, who has taken on and defeated unions—and much of the Democratic Party—in a state that is far from considered a Republican stronghold, who is drawing the group's attention on the first afternoon of CPAC. He's in the midst of a meteoric rise up the early GOP polls, which, naturally, makes him a prime target for the group.
About 15 minutes before Walker was set to speak, eight of the group's senior operatives huddled in the middle of their wide-open office space to discuss strategy. A day before, a full cheat sheet had been circulated with links to memos, video clips, research documents, and critical articles. Staffers responsible for each element of the rapid response sat ready as the group turned their attention to the C-SPAN webcast of the speech at 5 p.m. sharp.
With each subject Walker hit on in his speech, from education to budgets, the group was ready with a response. Then came the question and answer session and a question about how Walker would deal with a threat like the Islamic State.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” Walker said as he closed his answer.
It took less than five minutes for the first tweet to be fired out attacking the answer. Steven D'Amico, the group's research director who had been standing nearby overseeing the output, finally couldn't take it anymore.
“I need to go tweet this myself,” he said as he hustled back toward his desk.
By the end of the day, Walker would make clear to Bloomberg Politics that he was not, in fact, comparing union protesters to Islamic State militants.
“My point was just, if I could handle that kind of a pressure and kind of intensity, I think I'm up for the challenge for whatever might come, if I choose to run for president,” he said.
Over at American Bridge, it was a follow-up that meant little. They now had their line of attack and they seized on it throughout the evening, into the next day, and on into the next week. The video clip, it's safe to say, would be utilized quite often in the future should Walker run—along with no shortage of other issues, both big and small, apparently.
“Let's make sure we hit him on the Packers loss, too,” D'Amico said to nobody in particular as Walker finished up his speech.