Prepare for the House Campaign Oppo Rush

As primary season begins, Democrats are bracing for incoming opposition research on the flood of first-time candidates.

University of California, Irvine, researcher Hans Keirstead holds a bottle with human embryonic stem cells on Dec. 7, 2004, in his lab at the Gillespie Neuroscience Research Facility in Irvine, Calif.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Jan. 29, 2018, 8 p.m.

Hans Keirstead has the kind of standout resume that national Democrats have prized as they recruit fresh talent in a bid to take back the House.

He’s a pioneering stem-cell biologist specializing in spinal-cord injuries whose work has been profiled in The New York Times. And, according to his LinkedIn profile and a biography on his biomedical company’s website, he holds a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of British Columbia.

But that Ph.D, as national Democratic consultants found, is technically in zoology—a discrepancy, however innocent or not it may be, that could hinder a top challenger to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress.

This is just the latest example of what strategists predict will be a trove of opposition research dogging the glut of Democratic political neophytes hoping to benefit from a favorable national climate. And it will be dug up by Republicans and primary rivals alike.

“The Democratic nomination is worth having in 2018,” said Ian Russell, a former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who now advises several House campaigns. “You’re going to see candidates and campaigns pull out more stops than they would otherwise to win the primaries.”

Consultants working on House races said they expect a flurry of oppo dumps as primaries begin in earnest, describing rumors they’ve heard or files circulating that reveal potential candidate vulnerabilities. Several operatives described it as routine for campaigns to conduct cursory research into the background of an opponent, even if only to inform strategy.

The problem is particularly acute in California, where a jungle-primary system, swingy open seats, and the state Democratic Party’s endorsement process, which began last weekend, increase the urgency to stand out in crowded fields.

A Keirstead spokesman confirmed the candidate’s doctorate was in zoology, but clarified that it was with a specialty in neuroscience and added that he later became a professor of that discipline after further study at Cambridge University. Keirstead’s LinkedIn page was updated by Monday morning to note that his Ph.D. came from the university’s zoology department.

“Whomever tried to pitch this laughable attempt at mudslinging stands to benefit from Hans’ tireless efforts to boost STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) curriculum in our public-education system,” campaign spokesman Kyle Quinn-Quesada said.

Opponents on both sides of the aisle could use Keirstead’s academic characterization to craft a narrative that he has a tendency to exaggerate. He drew scrutiny this month when he said that Democratic leaders wanted to appoint him chairman of the House Science committee and give him a seat on Appropriations—something that leadership quickly denied to Roll Call.

Keirstead isn’t the only target in the closely watched 48th District. A file obtained by National Journal revealed Keirstead’s main Democratic rival, Harley Rouda, sits on the board of a shoe company that did business with a supplier accused of using sweatshop labor. In response, Rouda’s campaign stressed that he had never been involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.

“This is the first Harley has heard of this allegation,” said Rouda campaign consultant Mac Zilber, touting the candidate’s endorsements from six major labor unions. “Harley is a champion for workers and workers rights.”

Elsewhere in Orange County, three top Democratic contenders are running to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce, including two self-funding multimillionaires. Researchers compiled a 27-page file on one of them, Andy Thorburn, a businessman who seeded his campaign with a $2 million loan.

The report showed, among other things, that the IRS took out several tax liens against him when he failed to pay an estimated $600,000 in back taxes, and that Thorburn’s company bases some of its operations in Guernsey, an island off the coast of France that has been blacklisted as a tax haven by some European countries.

Thorburn’s campaign said it doesn’t view the research as a liability, noting that Thorburn has never hidden his bankruptcy filing and that Guernsey is one of the few places with regulations that enabled the creation of Thorburn’s insurance company.

Meanwhile, Republican outside groups, which dug up much of the opposition research that dogged Democratic folk musician Rob Quist in last year’s Montana special election, plan to have a similar role ahead of November’s elections.

The Congressional Leadership Fund began conducting field research last year in 15 races as part of its $100 million campaign to protect the Republican House majority. Its team of researchers deploys in the districts to scour old court cases, dig up property records, and conduct interviews. CLF partners with America Rising, which plans to target 30 to 40 House districts this cycle in an effort to discredit Democratic challengers.

Corry Bliss, CLF’s executive director, said the effort has uncovered potentially damaging information on several Democrats, particularly those who are wealthy or first-time candidates. He highlighted as an example possibly harmful divorce records that his team found on one highly touted DCCC recruit.

“In a couple of the races, the research is so good we don’t want to use it too early because a candidate may drop out of the race or it may cause their lead in a primary to crater,” Bliss said. “Timing is everything.”

CLF plans to engage in some Democratic primaries and will use its research to guide its efforts, boosting the weakest general-election nominee.

With an unusually large battlefield this cycle, Democrats can dust off research collected on longtime incumbents who haven’t had a competitive race in years. American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC, has trackers on the ground in 25 states who have recorded more than 1,200 House GOP campaign events this cycle. Its video database has more than 25,000 hours of footage of Republicans.

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