Dirt-Digging = Gold-Digging in Political Opposition Research

The Republican National Convention (RNC)

The dark side of politics isn’t that dark anymore.

In fact, digging up political dirt actually makes for a pretty good business model.

The first and last stop for every detail about Democrats is exactly what Republican-backed America Rising has modeled itself to become. With more than 30 clients, some paying more than seven figures for its work, the operation has expanded ten-fold in a year.

Twenty-three video trackers are spread across states around the country, following Senate, House and governor’s races and even up and coming Democrats on the state legislature level. Another 40 or so researchers and analysts review and catalog each piece of video sent back to their Rosslyn headquarters. And they are hiring.

“Our goal is to become a permanent part of the GOP conservative infrastructure,” Joe Pounder, president of America Rising LLC, said in an interview.

Republican operatives watched in 2012 as their Senate candidates crashed their own campaigns on video and outside Democratic groups like American Bridge and Priorities USA did the most damaging work highlighting Mitt Romney’s time at private equity firm Bain Capital.

The lack of a centralized method to track and hit Democrats on the party level was identified by the Republican National Committee and others in the party as a serious deficiency.

“We had a lot of great outside groups last time that were focused on television ads,” said Tim Miller, the group’s executive director and former deputy communications director at the RNC. “And while reaching voters through television ads is important, in the modern campaign, you need other tactics, too.”

America Rising is technically two groups — a hybrid operation split between a super-political action committee (America Rising PAC) and a limited liability firm (America Rising LLC).

The super-PAC, run by Miller, a veteran Republican operator with a particularly deep Rolodex of reporter contacts, is backed by high-level donors such as hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Advisors LLC and focuses on rapid response and distribution of the latest damning discoveries about Democrats.

The for-profit side, run by Pounder, provides research, analysis and intelligence to clients that range from candidates and campaign committees to super-PACs and dark money groups.

The group is playing in more than 50 races around the country, said Pounder, who helped start it  after stints running rapid response and research at the RNC, and campaigns for Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. John McCain’s 2008 president run.

Hillary Clinton is also a target — Miller is more or less her political shadow — and Pounder and his team are ramping up an operation to go digging on the biggest Democratic donors, most notably Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist who has pledged $100 million to support Democrats who back climate-change action.

In total, the two groups operate on a budget of about $10 million over this two-year cycle. While it’s no small sum, it’s nowhere near the type of cash being used by many of the party’s outside groups. That, at least in part, is an advantage when they pitch to donors, according to Miller.

“We feel like we can make a bigger impact with that money by coming up with, you know, a couple of good hits that those guys are able to use in television ads that make them more compelling,” he said.

The Republican establishment (both groups have pledged to stay out of primary races) has taken notice. The party’s House and Senate campaign committees have combined to spend $274,000 for the group’s services, according to federal filings. American Crossroads, the Republican super-PAC advised by Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s top political aide, has spent $850,000.

Democrats are also paying attention. American Bridge, one of the premiere outside party groups, launched its own rapid response operation, Correct the Record, to push back on attacks on Clinton and other top Democrats. At its launch last year, the group touted a move into “aggressive rapid response program to defend potential Democratic candidates from false attacks leveled by Republicans.” America Rising was among the groups singled out.

Pounder’s clients get access to a drop box operated by the firm, where video clips and new research finds are uploaded as soon as they are sent back to headquarters.

Pounder, flipping out his smartphone in his office inside the shared Rosslyn, Virginia, headquarters of the groups, went into a file on Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Kentucky Democrat running to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In seconds he pulled up and loaded a tracker video from her most recent event.

Innocuous on its face, the video serves more purposes than a simple hunt for damning quotes. It can also be used as background footage any client can use in their ads.

“This is valuable not only for what she says,” Pounder said.

The group also drafts opposition research books on Democratic candidates, which can run as long as 300 pages. They tackle each policy and political position, lawsuits, property records and financial disclosures.

Campaigns and outside groups can use the research in any way they see fit, though much of it is run through focus groups, polled by campaigns and candidates and, if a big enough impression is made, used in ad campaigns.

In the end, both Miller and Pounder see the group becoming a permanent part of the GOP infrastructure — one that sends trackers after rising Democratic stars as soon as they emerge, logging every piece of video into a single, searchable database that any candidate or group can access in the years ahead.

“We saw that there was a need for a group on the Republican side that would be able to take a long view, that wasn’t going to look just at elections in 2014, that was able to look at 2016 and 2018 and 2020 and monitor Democrats that are going to run for higher office in the future,” Miller said. “And we are going to start building research books on them now.”

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