Opposition Research Comes Out of the Shadows

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 24, 2016 · 9:00 AM EDT

If Republican Barbara Comstock ever wonders what attacks are coming her way later this year, the Virginia congresswoman can read the entire 535-page opposition research book on her life, which Democrats posted online.

Strategists at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not publish the document by accident. It’s just one example of how both parties publicly share information in order to avoid illegal coordination with outside groups and running afoul of campaign finance laws.

The independent expenditure arms of the campaign committees are technically independent, but 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 2016” at the bottom of the home page. Readers can click on the map of the United States for race-specific information or look under “Recent Updates,” where information for five races, including California’s 24th District, Virginia’s 10th District, Nevada’s 3rd District, and Minnesota’s 8th District, is currently posted.

Comstock’s book is long enough to necessitate a table of contents. It also contains a front-page disclaimer that is similar to other books:

“The following report contains research on Barbara Comstock, a Republican member of Congress in Virginia’s 10th district. Research for this research book was conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Research Department between November 2015 and February 2016.

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.”

Democrats’ book on California Republican Justin Fareed is just 20 pages long. He is running in the crowded race to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Lois Capps in Southern California’s 24th District.

Since he is only 27, there isn’t a lot to hit Fareed on, and his opposition book reflects it in length and content. According to the book on him, the “Top Hits” include, “Worked As A Capitol Hill Staffer,” “Was A Running Back On The UCLA Football Team Between 2006 And 2010, But Did Not Play A Single Game,” and “His Former Boss, Rep. Ed Whitfield, Endorsed Him And Donated To His Campaigns.”

Democrats also posted the research book on the other credible Republican in the race, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian. The 64-year-old businessman and legislator is more of a target-rich opponent for Democrats, as evidenced by the 224-page book against him.

But there are also less potent nuggets that aren’t likely to appear in a television ad. From 2006 to 2009, a few gas stations owned by Achadjian were cited for health violations including four violations of mold found inside the ice machine. More recently in 2014, pre-packaged sandwiches were sitting in a crate on the floor instead of off the ground.

In 2014, Democrats didn’t suffer from a lack of material against wealthy Republican Stewart Mills, who challenged Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s 8th District, and the DCCC already posted the 240-page research book on Mills for this year’s rematch.

Democrats are likely to keep attacking Mills for being wealthy and out-of-touch, but the book also contains less salacious material.

In 2008, an inspection report showed that a Mills Fleet Farm gas pump in Waite Park, Minn., was off by 130 cubic inches, resulting in customers only receiving 4.5 gallons for every 5 gallons they paid for, according the St. Cloud Times and cited in the book. And in 2009, Mills pleaded guilty to driving 71 mph in a 60 mph speed limit zone and paid a $140 fine.

Nevada Republican Michael Roberson’s 453-page research book is also available online. He faces competitive primary and potential general elections in the 3rd District, where GOP Rep. Joe Heck is leaving to run for the Senate.

According to the DCCC’s website, research books will be available later this month in Utah’s 4th, Texas’ 23rd, New York’s 24th, New Jersey’s 5th, Michigan’s 7th, and Maine’s 2nd districts. New York’s 1st, Illinois’ 10th, Iowa’s 1st, Florida’s 26th, and Colorado’s 6th are scheduled to be posted in May and Nevada’s 4th District in June.

House Republicans share information in 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’s site.

Republicans don’t appear to be posting yet since there is only information available in one race, Texas’s 23rd District, where former Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego is running for his old seat against GOP Rep. Will Hurd. Instead of uploading the entire opposition research book, GOP strategists tend to offer a list of top hits, talking points, and relevant votes.

There is no information posted yet on state Sen. Morgan Carroll of Colorado, for example, even though she is challenging Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado’s 6th District in one of the most competitive races of the cycle. But the site is ready with a menu for “Footage, Hits, B-Roll, Photos, Clipbook, Mail Pieces, GOP Bio.“

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. Even though the committees can’t tell the independent expenditure unit what TV ads to run, they suggest talking points and share opposition research online.

Opposition research is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, and it’s one of the major services that the campaign committees provide to a candidate. And because the research is public, it isn’t considered coordination.