Hunkered down with laptops and legal pads in the business center of a suburban apartment building, the young guns at the newest super PAC in town could pass for a bunch of mathletes preparing for the next competition.
It's not much of a war room, but who cares? After an election cycle in which slick Republican super PACs like American Crossroads and Restore Our Future were panned for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads that failed to move the needle, America Rising is a leaner, meaner outfit with one mission and one mission only: opposition research on Democrats.
"Conservative donors are more skeptical and want to be more educated about where their money is going, which will benefit America Rising because they are like the sniper shot instead of the shotgun blast that throws all the ads up against the wall," said David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group whose Supreme Court case opened the floodgates for super PACS by allowing unlimited donations. "One of the things we were missing in 2012 was a really terrific research operation."
Through old-school public record searches and new-media wizardry, America Rising is vetting and tracking Democratic candidates in search of that hypocritical nugget, policy flip-flop or embarrassing gaffe. Those hits can be posted online or leaked to media outlets at little cost and then picked up by other groups that can generate television ads, phone calls or direct mail. America Rising also has a limited liability company that will sell its research to Republican groups; Crossroads and Citizens United have already signed on as clients.
"We're in a new campaign finance universe in which there's a need for outside groups to fill particular lanes," said Tim Miller, one of America Rising's founders and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "I'm sure there were lots of stupid things that Democrats said last cycle that no one caught. Was there a gem out there that would have changed a race? Who knows?"
America Rising estimates that Democratic groups spent at least $15 million more on opposition research in the 2012 election, and it plans to get even by emerging as a major player in the 2014 mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential race. The group is eager to exploit what it sees as a mounting tension between red- and swing-state Democrats and the liberal activist base of the party. It's already going head to head against the Democratic opposition research group, American Bridge, in the raucous Virginia governor's race, matching every attack on Republican Ken Cuccinelli with an equally vicious missive against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Its biggest target is Hillary Clinton, the party's front-running candidate for president in 2016. Going after Clinton now, long before she's expected to announce her candidacy, gives America Rising a chance to throw punches before she heads a political organization that would fight back. What's more, it will take months to go through the vast public record on the former First Lady, senator from New York, presidential candidate and Secretary of State -- and it all has to be scoured with a 2013 sensibility. That means reviewing any remarks she ever made about the IRS, now the subject of a congressional probe into its targeting of conservative groups, or Obama's health care law, now going into effect, or border security, a sticking point in immigration reform talks.
"There's been talk for several cycles about filling a void on the research side because I think Republicans have gotten a little lazy and haven't done the field work as necessary," said Carl Forti, political director at Crossroads and a veteran of the Romney campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee. "One of the criticisms we've all heard is that in order to put a good product out there – television, mail, phones, whatever you need – you have to have the best research possible. The beauty of America Rising is that many different groups can use their research instead of everyone doing their own."
The presence of Miller, along with co-founders Matt Rhoades, campaign manager for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and Joe Pounder, the RNC's former research director, automatically confers heft and high expectations onto the fledgling group. It launched three months ago, shortly after a sweeping review of the 2012 election by the RNC found glaring gaps in the party's operations, including the time-honored practice of digging up dirt on one's opponents and the modern-day version of following them with a video camera. "We strongly recommend our side actively seek to define our opponents as early as possible in the process," said the RNC report. "Well-funded conservative groups should seek to hire activists to track Democrat incumbents and candidates with video cameras constantly recording their every movement, utterance, and action."
On the Democratic side, the dirty work is largely being done by American Bridge, the group founded in 2011 by right-winger-turned-liberal activist David Brock. One of its trackers on the ground in Missouri was the first to spot Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's comment on a local news show that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant. Within days, Romney and Senate Republican leaders were calling on Akin to drop out. Sen. Claire McCaskill, once viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, easily won re-election. Akin's remarks not only minimized the need for Democratic spending in Missouri but helped Democrats broadbrush other Republicans as out of touch with women.
American Bridge scored again when it caught Romney saying he made "not very much" from speaking fees. Researchers immediately pulled his financial disclosure forms and calculated that he had earned more than $374,000. American Bridge distributed video of Romney's remark, along with snarky commentary, and it was picked up by dozens of NBC affiliates and Comedy Central's The Daily Show. In all, American Bridge says it tracked 3,126 campaign events and completed 80 "books" on Republican candidates – essentially dossiers detailing their worst failures and most embarrassing moments.
"What we do isn't easy," said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge. "Most of the research and most of that tracking is not going to produce a Todd Akin moment. We did a huge amount of research on Tim Pawlenty, and the day after we were done with the book, he dropped out of the race."
Until it finds permanent office space, America Rising's weekly brainstorming sessions are being held in a conference room of an Arlington apartment building where two staffers live. Seven men and one woman, all between the ages of 23 and 31, sat Friday morning around a glass-topped table. They relished some recent successes: its anti-Clinton initiative was picked up by CNN and a tax complaint filed against Massachusetts Senate candidate Ed Markey was reported by The Daily Caller andThe Boston Herald. A couple negative stories about McAuliffe have also been planted. "I think we had a really good week," said Pounder, resisting a box of donuts in the middle of the table.
Other matters: Someone needs to fill in for the tracker in Virginia, whose mother is sick. The Virginia Democratic Party's annual fundraiser, which will be attended by McAuliffe and headlined by Vice President Joe Biden, is likely to provide fodder for future attacks. "Those are two of the biggest buffoons in the Democratic Party, so we should definitely do something," says one staffer. Also on the to-do list: a trip to the National Archives to pull McAuliffe's lobbying records and closely review the 2012 press conference unveiling his electric car company in Mississippi.
Coming soon: "books" on potential Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton's links to the scandals dogging the State Department, and tracking of vulnerable Democratic incumbents like Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Also on the radar screen: Democratic Reps. Scott Peters in California, Patrick Murphy in Florida and Steve Horsford in Nevada.
And if you think Markey's victory Tuesday takes him off the watch list, think again. America Rising is saving the Markey files for his 2014 re-election campaign.