Parties publish dirty laundry so the right people can air it
Putting research online avoids ‘coordination’ with outside groups
More than a dozen opposition research books are available on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s website, detailing planned lines of attack on Republican candidates in some of the most competitive races. But the committee wasn’t hacked, it wasn’t an accident, and it’s not new. Posting the documents was entirely intentional and just the beginning of a biennial, bipartisan tradition.
The books are typically a few hundred pages, but the ones available as of Wednesday varied in length from the 10 pages about Republican consultant Jim Bognet, who is running in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, to the 942-page, Robert Caro-esque volume on former GOP Rep. David Valadao, who is running to reclaim California’s 21st District after losing reelection in 2018.
Just the term “opposition research” conjures up images of dumpster-diving in the shadows for sensitive discarded documents that can then be used for surprise attacks in television ads. Posting the opposition research online, however, is just one example of how both parties publicly share information to avoid illegal coordination with outside groups and running afoul of campaign finance laws. And it’s been happening for nearly a decade. (see “IE strategy borders on art form,” in CQ Roll Call eight years ago.)
Strategy avoids duplication
Since the official campaign committees can’t coordinate with their independent expenditure arms or with outside groups, strategists on both sides of the aisle use public signals to keep the party on the same page and avoid duplication of resources, such as paying twice for the same background information.
Publicly available opposition research is also evidence that there are few surprises in modern campaigns, where races are more likely to be decided by execution and quality of ads, money to put them in front of voters, the partisanship of a district, and the national political environment.
The two parties share research and talking points in slightly different ways.
The DCCC buries the information on its own site, DCCC.org, under “Races” near the bottom right of the home page, although most strategists on both sides of the aisle have already bookmarked the URL dccc.org/races/ since that has been consistent for years. Scrolling down below the map is a list of 13 updates as of Wednesday, providing links to research books on the candidates.
The books follow a similar format, including beginning with a disclaimer.
“The following report contains research on Ann Wagner, Republican member of Congress in Missouri’s 2nd district. Research for this research book was conducted by the DCCC’s Research Department between January and April 2020.
“By accepting this report, you are accepting responsibility for all information and analysis included. Therefore, it is your responsibility to verify all claims against the original documentation before you make use of it.
“Make sure you understand the facts behind our conclusions before making any specific charges against anyone.
The 913-page book then goes on to detail the congresswoman’s record. Wagner is in a competitive race for reelection.
The books proceed from general themes and get progressively more detailed. One of the goals of posting the research is to maintain consistency in messaging and documentation across groups who can’t coordinate to ensure that the granular details support the main assertions.
Findings become attacks
Most of the books have a Table of Contents followed by “Key Findings,” which can be easily turned into talking points or messages for an attack ad.
The oldest update listed on the DCCC site as of Wednesday is for Claire Chase, a young Republican in New Mexico’s 2nd District. The 95-page document was posted on March 26, including the Key Finding, “Claire Chase Was a Lobbyist and Establishment Insider.” Two months later, on May 26, Patriot Majority PAC, a Democratic outside group that can’t legally coordinate with the DCCC, aired an “attack” ad utilizing the lobbyist moniker, because Democrats believed she’d be the most difficult general election opponent. Yvette Herrell, the 2018 GOP nominee, won the June 2 primary.
In the case of GOP Rep. Don Bacon, the beginning of the 540-page volume includes: “Don Bacon Is The Wrong Choice For Nebraskan’s Health,” “Don Bacon Is Bad for Nebraskans,” and “Bacon Is A Trump Loyalist, Not A Moderate Conservative Outsider.” Those message points are likely to be made on television this fall.
Other research books posted include Beth Van Duyne (Texas’ 24th District, 239 pages), Karen Handel (Georgia’s 6th, 358 pages), Michelle Fischbach (Minnesota’s 7th, 170 pages), Carlos Gimenez (Florida’s 26th, 359 pages), Claudia Tenney (New York’s 22nd, 657 pages), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa’s 2nd, 27 pages) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pennsylvania’s 1st, 664 pages). In cycles past, the DCCC has telegraphed which research books are in the works by posting what is coming and when it will be published.
While the research often documents potentially controversial votes, statements or business problems, it can also include more innocuous attacks.
Pre-packaged sandwiches and ‘fabulous’ cake
Back during the 2016 cycle, the Democratic book against Minnesota Republican Stewart Mills included a 2009 traffic violation, in which he pleaded guilty to driving 71 mph in a 60 mph speed limit zone and paid a $140 fine. Research against California GOP Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian pointed out that pre-packaged sandwiches were sitting in a crate on the floor of one of the gas stations he owned in 2014.
This cycle, the 63-page book against Arizona Republican Tiffany Shedd includes quotes and issue stances from her campaigns, business interests, political donations and professional history, as well as the fact that she met her future husband in elementary school and “allegedly made ‘fabulous’ pumpkin-pie cake.” Inside Elections rates her 1st District race against Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran Likely Democratic.
House Republicans share information in a slightly different way.
Instead of information being published on the National Republican Congressional Committee site, Republicans created a microsite, DemocratFacts.org, not linked directly from the NRCC site.
Republicans haven’t posted any information there yet, but it’s very likely to be the host site for research once again, according to multiple GOP sources. Sometimes, instead of uploading the entire opposition research book, strategists tend to offer a list of top hits, talking points and relevant votes. It can also turn into a resource hub for b-roll footage, photos and direct mail pieces. The goal is the same as it is for the Democrats: to keep everyone on the same page.
The websites might seem innocuous, but they are actively read by party strategists on both sides of the aisle and staffers in each committee are assigned to comb the sites each day for new information. While it might be shocking for a candidate to see his or her entire life on public display in a PDF, the upcoming hits shouldn’t be a surprise if they’ve taken the time and money to pay for research into their own backgrounds.
As more “Key Findings” from a party committee end up as talking points for independent groups, it might look illegal. But because the research is public, it isn’t considered coordination.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an election analyst with CQ Roll Call.