Democrats shouting about ethical lapses by Republicans in the Donald Trump era should be prepared for a taste of their own medicine in 2018.
A major Republican organization dedicated to digging up dirt on Democrats has restructured its leadership team and is now laying down congressional- and presidential-year campaign plans, which include a bigger push in digital advertising, highlighting Democratic “hypocrisy” on ethical issues and exploiting the divide on the left between centrists and progressives.
In an exclusive interview with McClatchy, America Rising PAC announced a new executive director: Alexandra Smith, the former chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee and the first woman to lead the group. Colin Reed, who previously held that role, is moving into a senior adviser position, where he will focus on tracking Democrats’ possible 2020 contenders – “developing a negative narrative on them early and often,” he said.
Democrats have been dramatically at odds since at least last year’s election, split between an energized liberal base and the more moderate establishment—mirroring, in some ways, the longtime divides in the GOP. It’s a fight that spilled into the open during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, when Bernie Sanders delivered a surprisingly strong showing against Hillary Clinton.
“The narrative has flipped from where it was with Republicans—in terms of having so many litmus tests in previous cycles, that narrative has now flipped to Democrats,” Smith said. “Where, for example, a litmus test is single payer on health care...senators in some of these more vulnerable states are going to have to answer to the left wing of the party while at the same time trying to appeal to these voters who voted overwhelmingly for Trump and congressional Republicans previously.”
Certainly, Republicans have no shortage of internal dissent over everything from the foundering health care bill to how to deal with President Donald Trump. But America Rising’s mandate is to focus solely on highlighting challenges for Democrats.
Their trackers across the country are keeping close tabs on politicians who may sound one note on progressive priorities in Washington and another back home, especially among the Democratic senators facing re-election in states Trump won.
And the America Rising officials also said that they see new openings to press Democrats on their own ethical vulnerabilities in the Trump era.
“Hypocrisy always sells. No one likes hypocrites,” Reed said.
Overshadowing any such GOP-driven effort, of course, are the multiple investigations underway into Russian interference in the U.S. election, and, critically, whether anyone in Trump’s orbit was involved. The president’s son sparked the latest controversy this week when emails surfaced in which he expressed interest in receiving negative information about Hillary Clinton that was clearly sourced to Russia’s government.
Democrats have also raised concerns about nepotism and business-related conflicts of interest, especially as Trump continues to profit off his clubs and special interest groups book events at his hotel down the road from the White House.
“Democrats have raised holy hell over ethical issues, potential conflicts of interest, vis a vis the administration,” Reed said, speaking broadly. “All of these candidates that will hold themselves to high moral ground when it comes to ethics in government are going to face an awful lot of scrutiny from groups like ours on their own personal financial disclosures, on their own FEC reports.”
Smith said that the organization plans to highlight such findings in part through a bigger emphasis on digital ads.
“One particular passion of mine is digital advertising: I think it can be weaponized in incredible ways for very specific audiences,” Smith said. “My goal is to introduce more of that, to take these smaller nuggets of information that maybe don’t make it to the big-league TV ads, but for smaller audiences online, can be really effective.”
America Rising was launched in 2013 by alums and allies of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. Also following Romney’s defeat, Smith oversaw the release of a 2013 report that lambasted the GOP for turning off a younger, more diverse group of voters.
Now, she’s taking a big-tent approach to delivering opposition research, saying that part of her aim is to identify and share hits that might resonate with constituencies who are not considered traditional Republican demographics, including young people and women.
Her emphasis is on day-to-day executing of the midterms, while Reed is fueling preparations for 2020. He is zeroing in on potential Democratic challengers to Trump including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, though Democrats including Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and unsuccessful Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander are also on the radar.
Last year, America Rising actually tried to help Sanders’ presidential campaign, boosting him in an attempt to weaken the candidate, Clinton, they expected to face in the general election.
But Reed and Smith said GOP groups now need to take Sanders more seriously – not as a “crazy old uncle,” Smith said—especially if Sanders decides to run for president in 2020.
“He’s never really undergone serious scrutiny,” Reed said. “He never really went under the microscope like Hillary Clinton and the way Mitt Romney did in terms of just having the full bore of the party apparatus against him.”
Reed also said Warren, in whose re-election campaign in Massachusetts next year America Rising is taking a special interest, would be a formidable candidate in the primary—but there’s a lot of information the group could be prepared to reveal about Warren if she runs for president in three years.
“People don’t know what she was doing prior to bursting on national scene five years ago,” Reed said “That’s where research groups like ours can come in and inform voters.”
America Rising, Reed said, is “keeping an eye on the rising blue stars, if you will. That’s a lane not filled by any other group, where we always try to go.”