“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.
Inside Miller’s office, where he and Pounder are talking through the plans for 2014—they expect a budget of $10 million to $15 million, according to the Huffington Post—there’s a bookshelf with a copy of What A Party!, the chest-thumping, golf-game-reminiscing memoir by now-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It’s a memento of their first real loss. America Rising came up with one of the most theoretically damaging hits on McAuliffe, a promotional video for his troubled car company, GreenTech. The man who’d repeatedly talked about bringing a car company from China to America stood in Outer Mongolia, grinning about the 15 million square foot facility going up there. Neither Republican campaigns nor reporters had noticed it. America Rising found it buried on the GreenTech site. Other hits followed, all on this theme, but McAuliffe won anyway.
“McAuliffe was a better candidate, no doubt, than four years ago,” offers Miller. “He was on message. They knew their candidate’s weaknesses. He benefited by not being a new candidate—he goes off message and, oh, that’s just Terry, acting crazy! That’s just Terry, being folksy again. In 2013 a lot of the media felt that stuff had been asked and answered.”
“The campaign kept him from doing one-on-one interviews,” says Pounder.
“The one interview he did, the [Virginia political reporter] Ryan Nobles interview, we used in every ad! The ad that tested the best was from that interview.”
“Very few press gaggles after his events,” adds Pounder.
“But hiding a candidate is not a path to success in statewide races,” says Miller. “That’s not a path to success for [Kentucky Senate candidate] Alison Lundergan Grimes or [Georgia Senate candidate] Michelle Nunn. The hard questions are going to get asked and answered.”
America Rising is counting on candidates being questioned in states that have been voting Republican for president or where the local Democratic party has been losing elections: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina.
“Think about where the battleground map is,” says Miller. “This or that remark might not be that damning in Massachusetts, but many of the competitive races are happening on turf that Romney won.”
Republicans need to win six Senate seats to take total control of Congress, and they realize they could have done this earlier if they hadn’t nominated losers in a few 2010 and 2012 races, or if millions of dollars hadn’t been blown on stupid ads. All their tracking can serve as a foundation for the 2014 contests.
“Something in a research file now that doesn’t seem relevant may be relevant six months from now,” says Pounder. “The benefit of working on this full time, through the cycle, is that you’ll stay aware of it.”
“I think there’s a misconception that this is happening in order to catch [Iowa Senate candidate] Bruce Braley saying he’s upset with the lack of towels in the House gym during the shutdown. That’s fun, that gets on Jimmy Kimmel, that’s not the point. Three months from now if there’s a controversy regarding some local official in Arkansas, we can go back and we know what Mark Pryor said about it. When the NSA thing popped last summer, probably nothing any of these candidates said about the NSA had ever raised a red flag. But now we’ve catalogued that information, so when the next NSA pops up, we know what they said.”
“If we were sitting here a year ago,” says Pounder, “nobody would have said ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan’ would be an issue. OK. Kay Hagan has said it numerous times. Mark Pryor has said it once or twice. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then you go back to everything they’re starting to say since the debate started. They didn’t just say, ‘if you like your plan you can keep it.’ They said, if you like your doctor, you can keep him.’ They said, ‘I do like the public option.’ They said, ‘maybe Obamacare didn’t go far enough.’ They were intricate players in the debate, and most of that is on video.”
Why would support for a public option hurt a candidate? “It fits in because you ask: You thought Obamacare’s implementation was bad? They wanted to go even further.” America Rising is the freezer of the Republican party, storing messages and narratives are, that can be taken out at the right moment, microwaved, and served to voters.