Jeb Bush was in New Hampshire, talking to voters about the education standards called Common Core.
Back in Washington, ears perked up on a team that spends all day, every day, scouring television and the Internet for appearances by Republican presidential candidates. A check of the team’s vast video archive unearthed a 2011 clip of Bush seemingly saying something different.
Days later, a 30-second video of the clips appeared on a political blog under the headline: “Jeb Bush’s shifting words on Common Core.”
The quick hit by the Democratic political action committee American Bridge was the latest shot from an opposition war room in the digital age. As their counterparts do on the other side, liberal and Democratic groups such as American Bridge are working to turn every move and utterance by a burgeoning field of Republican presidential hopefuls into a viral tweet, a damaging video or a scathing TV or newspaper story.
Their monitors track every move by the Republicans, research public records and record the hopefuls at campaign events – all in a quest to define the Republican field in a way to make them look bad.
“We constantly are digging,” said American Bridge’s research director, Steven D’Amico. “You don’t always find the silver bullet every day, but the truth is we find much smaller things that push a narrative.”
In Bush’s case, he said, the Common Core clip helped illustrate one of several storylines that Democrats are pushing: that the former Florida governor is modifying his beliefs to court conservatives.
Bridge is just one element that’s working to counter Republicans.
The Democratic National Committee has a 20-person team headed by an Obama campaign veteran compiling opposition research on the candidates and feeding a rapid response program, Factivists, with links encouraging grass-roots supporters to share short clips on Facebook and Twitter.
Bridge started emerging as a power in 2012, when it helped force Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the defensive over his business career.
And it was American Bridge that captured and distributed the remarks by former Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, that there was such a thing as “legitimate rape.” It cost him the election, and caused headaches for Republicans up and down the ballot.
With bare concrete floors, unfinished ceilings and loads of recycling bins between the 20- and 30-somethings glued to computer screens, its Washington-based operation resembles a tech startup more than an influential political player midway between the White House and the Capitol.
There, D’Amico oversees a team of 25 who comb through news accounts, read legislative documents, file requests for public records and keep a steady eye on 12 television screens.
Teams have mined data at various state capitols and, with the brother and son of a president in the running, at federal agencies and both Bush libraries.
This year it’s live-streaming events in early-voting states back to Washington headquarters, where the rapid response team can kick in immediately.
Its camera-carrying “trackers” are not always welcome: A staffer for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently approached a Bridge tracker’s camera at an event in New Hampshire and licked the lens.
American Bridge took advantage of the encounter, tweeting the exchange, posting it to YouTube – more than 327,000 views and counting – and blogging news coverage of what it dubbed “Lick Gate.”
Although its Republican counterparts are primarily focused on Hillary Clinton, American Bridge has nearly a dozen Republicans in its sights. In January, it released a 200-page hardcover book – with 1,221 footnotes – pointing out the Republicans’ potential liabilities in detail.
“We didn’t wait until the ink was dry on the 2014 election to get started on the 2016 election,” said American Bridge President Brad Woodhouse. “We have little doubt we’ll have the information we need to be able to prosecute this campaign.”
That includes the second and third tiers of candidates, Woodhouse said.
“If any one of them emerged as the nominee tomorrow I would feel like we had a sufficient amount of information to begin a campaign against them,” he said.
Woodhouse is taking leave from the group to become president of a sister organization, Correct the Record, that focuses on supporting Clinton and disproving or disputing what it calls false accounts of her record.
American Bridge is also running a digital project aimed at conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, whose political network reportedly plans to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections.
American Bridge was created in 2011 by former conservative Clinton foe turned liberal backer David Brock in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the door for increased outside unregulated spending in elections.
His constellation includes a number of other groups, as well.
Correct the Record
Correct the Record was launched in November 2013 to run reverse opposition research, essentially delving into Clinton’s record at the State Department to defend her against critics. It recently split off from American Bridge and is registering as a separate committee.
Its 20-person team hasn’t restricted itself to Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state: When controversy arose over Clinton’s role as a public defender in a Little Rock rape case, the group made certain that media outlets heard from the prosecutor in the case, who said Clinton had been appointed to the case and had expressed reservations about it.
More recently, Correct the Record issued a 42-page rebuttal to “Clinton Cash,” a book by conservative author Peter Schweizer that accuses Clinton of trading access for contributions to her family’s charitable foundation.
American Democracy Legal Fund
Another Brock subsidiary, American Democracy Legal Fund was started last year. It combs campaign finance reports for what it says are violations. The group has called this year for a state ethics investigation into a trip that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accepted from the owner of the Dallas Cowboys and has filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission against Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee.
Much of American Bridge’s research is likely to show up in ads produced by Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, which were created in 2011 by former White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney as the Democratic counter to conservative groups Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads. They plan to help Clinton by raising money to pay for TV and Web ads.
Priorities played a key role in helping to re-elect Obama, raising $70 million and producing one of the most controversial ads of the cycle. The spot sought to link Romney to a woman’s death from cancer after her husband lost his job at a Kansas City steel mill that was bought by Romney’s investment firm.
Obama was forced to distance himself from the ad amid criticism, and the group isn’t ruling out similar themes in 2016.
“We played a critical role in helping elect a Democratic president in 2012, and we look forward to doing the same in 2016,” said spokesman Peter Kauffmann.