In a nondescript high-rise in the suburbs of Washington, a group of 20-somethings is waging war on Hillary Clinton.
They’re tracking her every move, analyzing her utterances during decades in public life and updating a library of 1,000 videos dating to the early 1980s.
Even the tiniest bit of information might be used, at a moment’s notice, via Twitter, video or news release, to attack the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“We’re the eyes and ears,” said Francis Brennan, 25, war room director at the conservative political action committee America Rising. “We try to just pump out as many facts as we can. Everything we do is fact-based. It’s not scrutinized or opinion-based. It’s all facts. We have to prove what we are saying. We can’t just say things.”
America Rising isn’t alone in its work on Clinton. She faces a trio of major independent organizations, each armed with different tools but all with the same mission: Defeat her.
The groups – America Rising, Citizens United and Crossroads GPS – are expected to have more money, more staff and more ways than ever to get out their message this year than in any previous presidential race.
Then there’s the Republican National Committee, which probably has the largest megaphone of any conservative organization, with hundreds of employees working in Washington and individual states on research, tracking and communications as well as recruiting volunteers and raising money.
As the race heats up, Clinton will likely be confronted by more and more well-financed opposition, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity.
It’s what Clinton might describe as a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” the phrase she once used to characterize attacks on her husband.
“We are back into the political season, and there are all kinds of distractions and attacks,” Clinton said Monday in New Hampshire. “And I am ready for that. I know that comes, unfortunately, with the territory. It is, I think, worth nothing that the Republicans seem to be talking only about me. I don’t know what they would be talking about if I wasn’t in the race.”
Democrats, too, have myriad well-funded groups researching Republican presidential hopefuls, but because there are so many possible candidates those organizations haven’t been able to focus on one, as their GOP counterparts have with Clinton.
The conservative groups have been collecting information on Clinton for years – long before she announced she was running for president for a second time last week – using millions of dollars in donations, some of them hidden from public.
After all, she’s been in spotlight since the 1970s, when Bill Clinton started his long career in Arkansas. She’s served as first lady of Arkansas and of the country, senator from New York and secretary of state.
“Hillary Clinton’s biggest challenge in this race will be defending her decades-long record of scandal and failed leadership,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
Scandal or not, she has a long record, and it’s almost all in the war rooms.
Last month, for example, they were ready when Clinton said she’d used a personal email account for government business only because she didn’t want to carry two phones. America Rising reached into its archive and, before she’d even finished talking, distributed video from a recent speech in Silicon Valley showing her admitting she’d carried both an iPhone and a BlackBerry.
Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee declined to comment for this story.
Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal PAC American Bridge, said the Democratic groups working against Republican hopefuls had a sharper message because they coordinated and communicated, unlike their Republican counterparts. “They do not have a consistent approach,” he said.
One of the groups, Citizens United, is led by a man who’s been tracking the Clintons’ records for years.
“I know them,” said David Bossie, who investigated the Clintons while working on Capitol Hill in the 1990s. “I know how they operate.”
The group made a documentary for the 2008 campaign titled “Hillary: The Movie,” which had been scheduled to air on TV before the Democratic primaries. But the federal government blocked its release, saying it ran afoul of campaign laws.
A subsequent Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , opened the door for more outside unregulated spending in elections.
For this presidential campaign, Citizens United began filing Freedom of Information Act requests at the State Department last year in hopes of getting enough information to produce a second documentary about Clinton.
Citizens United, which spent $3 million researching liberals in the 2014 midterm elections, has filed five lawsuits against the State Department in recent months after its requests for Clinton’s travel and communications records went unanswered.
“The only way to get results is to force bureaucrats into court,” Bossie said. “We’re going to get something from these lawsuits. It’s not if, it’s when.”
Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, related groups created in 2010 by Republican uber-strategist Karl Rove and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, work mainly to help candidates by running TV ads. Lots of them.
They spent $60 million in the 2014 midterm elections and roughly 70 percent of their candidates won, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics, though published reports put that number closer to $100 million. Last fall, the group helped Republicans seize control of the Senate.
They’re working on their opposition research and polling now, with the ads to come later. Steven Law, a former deputy labor secretary who is the group’s president, declined to comment.
America Rising was created after Democrats beat Republicans at the dirt-digging game in the 2012 presidential election. That year, the liberal group American Bridge aggressively attacked Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“We weren’t as well focused,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who worked for Romney.
A 100-page review by the RNC of pro-Republican efforts after the 2012 losses called for “an outside group . . . that focuses solely on research of Democrats,” one that will “establish a private archive and public website that does nothing but post inappropriate Democrat utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information.”
That led the RNC to increase its opposition research and tracking, in which a staffer follows a candidate with a video camera recording everything. It also prompted former RNC and Romney staffers to create America Rising, modeled after American Bridge.
The group had trackers in 36 states in 2014. Trackers are already in a dozen states for 2016.
America Rising helped catch Iowa Democratic Senate hopeful Bruce Braley insulting farmers and longtime Republican Sen. Charles Grassley on video. It also found Democratic Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign plan, which was online accidentally. Both discoveries changed the courses of the races and helped the Republicans win those seats, and control of the Senate.
In the war room at America Rising, where walls are decorated with posters of Republican presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, staffers work in shifts between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. on the seemingly mundane tasks of examining public records, statements and voting records.
They conduct online searches of candidates’ names, monitor news and comedy shows such as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Late Show With David Letterman,” watch congressional hearings and listen to State Department and White House briefings.
The organization has been preparing for Clinton’s second campaign since early 2013. It had a budget of about $8 million for the 2014 election cycle but aims to nearly double that to $15 million, according to its staff.
Just last week, it released video of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, asking for money from donors in San Francisco on the day Clinton announced in Iowa that one of her four goals in the White House would be to get “unaccountable” money out of politics.
“She’s got a machine, an apparatus she’s been building – she and her husband – for the better part of the last 25 years,” executive director Colin Reed said. “We’re neutral on the Republican side, and while our side is figuring it out . . . we’re going to make sure somebody is holding her accountable for what she’s been doing.”
Brittany Peterson contributed to this story.