WASHINGTON — Republicans are touting a 100-page report full of lofty talk about reaching out to minority voters and projecting an air of tolerance. But three paragraphs spell out another way of doing business: Stalking Democrats.
“Well funded conservative groups should seek to hire activists to track Democratic incumbents and candidates with video cameras constantly recording their every movement, utterance, and action,” the report urged.
The five-member study group’s report outlined in stark terms what it wants:
“An allied group dedicated to research to establish a private archive and public website that does nothing but post inappropriate Democrat utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats would serve as an effective vehicle for affecting the public issue debate.”
Like Project Veritas, the conservative outfit that’s sparked controversy as it trains what it calls “citizen journalists” to secretly videotape people in politics and government? Like the Democrat-friendly American Bridge, which has a sophisticated tracking operation that logged about 3,200 events during the last election cycle?
On Thursday, a group of Republican campaign veterans announced the formation of their new group, called America Rising
“This organization will be a counter-weight to the Democratic equivalent, American Bridge,” the new group said in a statement.
“We plan to start this enterprise because so many Republicans seem to agree there is a need on our side of the aisle for an entity that is focused solely on holding Democrats accountable for their actions and records using research, candidate tracking, rapid response and digital tools,” added Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager and a key organizer of the new group.
The party and candidates for federal office are prohibited from coordinating with outside groups leading up to elections.
But the idea of video tracking is growing in politics, aided by the spread of handheld cameras, the availability of the Internet to spread “gotcha” videos, and the hunger of people for what appears to be raw cinema verite.
It caught fire after an Indian-American Democratic volunteer shooting video of Republican Sen. George Allen showed the senator to refer to him as “macaca,” which struck some as a racial slur. The video went viral, and Allen lost.
The video race was on.
Last year, a bartender recorded Romney’s remark at a fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans are “depending on government” and “believe that they are victims.” The clip helped fuel the image Romney was an out-of-touch rich guy.
The tracking process grew more sophisticated in the last election cycle, as American Bridge was created with the sole purpose of conducting opposition research, communications and tracking of Republicans.
“Democrats felt we couldn’t match Republican groups dollar for dollar,” explained Chris Harris, communications director for American Bridge. “Our groups had to be more creative, more efficient, and work together."
American Bridge hired 20 trackers, people ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s, who knew how to handle sophisticated camera equipment. They got about 2,000 hours of footage and were instructed to only record relevant events.
They claimed success stories, including catching Romney taking a hard line on illegal immigration, saying among others things that illegal immigrants were “looking for a free meal.”
American Bridge raised about $17 million and spent about $15 million. It’s already out tracking candidates who could be running in 2014 and 2016.
America Rising says it will be “focused on defining potential Democratic 2016 candidates and will begin building a research and monitoring infrastructure . . . (aimed at ) holding these candidates accountable for their claims when they begin their presidential campaigns.”
Its strategy is to “bring together multi-channel rapid response, communications, social media, and digital advertising campaigns. Its plan is to generate earned media and have a robust online presence. It will not be involved in broadcast television advertising.”
Among conservatives, Project Veritas, headed by activist James O’Keefe, is also in this mix. Last fall, it taped Patrick Moran, field director for the campaign of his father, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., saying he would “look into” a possible voter fraud proposal. Patrick Moran resigned his position after the video surfaced.
In 2010, CNN reported that O’Keefe tried to embarrass a correspondent “by recording a meeting on hidden cameras aboard a floating ‘palace of pleasure’ and making sexually suggestive comments, emails and a planning document show.” The correspondent, though, was warned in advance, foiling the plan.
O’Keefe, who could not be reached for comment, told National Public Radio’s “On the Media” program the next year that his tactics are “a form of guerrilla theater. You’re posing as something you’re not, in order to capture candid conversations from your subject. But I wouldn’t characterize it as, as lying.”
Both parties are convinced tracking works. Republicans tell candidates in media training, “Never let your guard down,” said Andrea Bozek, National Republican Congressional Committee communications director.
There is a potential glitch: Sometimes the public either doesn’t care, or finds the idea of video tracking distasteful.
“There is a stigma that goes with doing this. It’s viewed as a dirty job,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
On the other hand, he said, the trackers aren’t going away. “Because it’s so difficult to know what matters,” he said, “the parties want to have as much information as possible.”