“Go back and look at that Michelle Obama speech,” says Tim Miller. It’s Jan. 9, and the 32-year-old Republican strategist is perched in front of his Macbook Air, explaining how the first lady just hurt the Democrats’ candidate for an open Senate seat in West Virginia.
“I’m pulling it up. Okay. Here’s a great Charleston Daily Mail headline: ‘Michelle Obama backs Natalie Tennant in Senate race.’ ”
Miller laughs, because of course that’s a horrible headline. Nothing about it draws the reader in, or tells them what gaffes or toxic admissions might have happened when Obama arrived. The paper buried the ledes. “She talks about health care,” says Miller. “She talks about gun control. She talks about immigration. I don’t know if she mentioned Keystone, but even the EPA regulations—that was something Michelle Obama mentioned. If you’re any of these Democrat candidates running in red states, any of the issues I just mentioned is kryptonite.”
It’s Miller’s job to obsess about those details. He runs America Rising PAC, the Republican-aligned opposition research factory launched 10 months ago by Mitt Romney’s defeated campaign manager Matt Rhoades. After the election, the Republican National Committee researched and released an autopsy of the loss. The party needed, according to the RNC, was a group that did “nothing but post inappropriate Democrat utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats.” Miller left the RNC to join the clearinghouse; As of last week, between the PAC and the LLC run by fellow oppo vet Joe Pounder, America Rising employed 47 more people, full or part-time.
America Rising found office space in the right-to-work concrete paradise of northern Virginia, one metro stop outside of Washington, D.C. Visitors walk into a minimalist space, with no receptionist, past a coffee table that stacks old magazines with conservative cover stars. Every few feet there’s a portrait of a Republican icon like Teddy Roosevelt or a ha-ha-remember-that joke at a Democrats’ expense. The centerpiece is a blown-up photo of John Kerry taking a bodysuited windsurfing break during the 2004 campaign. They bought it on eBay.
That’s about it. The office is quiet, no TVs blaring cable news, most TVs relegated to a “war room” away from the researchers’ desks. Many of its employees spend their days “tracking” Democratic candidates, particular Senate candidates in key states. These trackers attempt to shoot video of every single public utterance the candidates' make, in hopes of catching gaffes and flip-flops and collecting an archive that can be mined for hypocrisy and errors.
“Big oppo” is the Republican response to the Democrats’ highly successful American Bridge project, whose 2012 work Pounder and Miller praise effusively.
“In the down-ticket races, they don’t get enough credit for working with the outside groups,” says Miller. “Sierra Club, House Majority PAC – you can see the Bridge influence. And that allowed them to put a lot of pressure on the [communications] shops of our candidates. But that oppo they did on our Senate and House candidates jammed up our candidates’ shops. Every minute they’re spending going back to FEC reports to knock down a lead from a reporter, a lead they got from American Bridge, is a minute they’re not spending on something that advances their interests.”
One reason why America Rising and American Bridge do so much tracking is that it is easier now—quick uploads where there used to be lengthy ftp wait times.
“I did tracking for Romney in 2007, 2008,” recalls Pounder.
“Was it you guys that did Bomb, Bomb Iran?” asks Miller, referring to a video of Sen. John McCain responding to a question from a voter by rewriting the lyrics of a Beach Boys hit. “Or was that on the news?”
“That was tracker footage,” says Pounder.