Sweeping research can turn up dirt on opponents

Published July 23, 2006

WASHINGTON - Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky was in a close race a few campaigns back, until she was rewarded by the fruits of her campaign's research into her opponent's record.

The resulting commercial showed Eleanor Jordan in an unflattering moment, standing on the floor of the Kentucky Legislature urging fellow lawmakers to wrap up their work.

"I have a fundraiser at 6 o'clock and I want to get out of here," Jordan said with an impatient glance at her wristwatch.

Jordan "lost her momentum after that," Northup, a Republican, said recently - neither the first nor the last candidate to benefit from a political subspecialty known as opposition research.

To some, opposition research is a tedious but important part of politics. To others, it's a black art. Although it is equally available to both parties, Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have excelled in recent years at conducting and using the research.

"Votes, quotes and anecdotes," Michael Gehrke, a veteran Democratic researcher, called his area of expertise. "At the end of the day, all you're really finding is nuggets."

"Silver bullets are frequently talked about but rarely found," said Brian Jones, a Republican with long experience in political research. "Ultimately, what make the most effective hits are 'did they pay their taxes (or) did they vote for excessive spending.' "

By any description, the art of combing a politician's past for fact or flaw has taken on a wider role in recent years.

Technology is part of the reason. Once, researchers had to look through musty newspaper archives. Now, the Internet and the proliferation of cable television make voluminous information and arresting images far more readily available.

Both parties maintain the senatorial equivalent of a campaign war room in the Capitol, constantly drawing on their research to put the other side in the worst light possible.

With the House narrowly divided between the parties, research plays a prominent role every two years in the few dozen races that are pivotal.

Republican Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois lost in 2004 after Democrats emphasized his habit of taking junkets at the expense of lobbyists. Two years earlier, Democrat George Cordova's bid for Congress from Arizona effectively ended when Republicans unearthed two tax liens.

"You need to know everything about your opponent's voting record, policy record, everything he or she has ever said, done, even thought of," said Stephanie Cutter, a consultant who worked on Democratic Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign.

Given the scrutiny they can expect, it's wise for candidates to conduct opposition research on themselves.

"The ideal situation is to know before the other side your most vulnerable point," said Terry Holt, a veteran of House campaigns as well as President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

Senate campaigns often conduct the research themselves. Most House campaigns do not. Party committees generally limit their involvement to races that strategists believe could be pivotal in the national battle for control of Congress.

"We send someone into the district who would go to the library, check (online) or old clips of newspapers. They'd go to the county courthouse and look through tax records, property records, all available public documents, including criminal records," said Carl Forti of the House Republican campaign committee.

In other cases, committees or candidates hire outside companies to do the job, saving money on travel costs.

Final reports can be voluminous. Strategy considerations dictate when and how the material is used.

"You're thinking about how you might want to release the information so it's going to have a maximum amount of impact," Jones said.

The options include mass mailings and television commercials, but in some cases, it's preferable to "get the information into a newspaper. Then you have third-party credibility."

A Web site or blog are other options, on the theory that once information is on the Internet, it may gain wider circulation in the mainstream media.

Sometimes, the most prized research is held until the final stages of a campaign.

Northup's camp was tipped to Jordan's remarks in late winter or early spring of 2000 and a young researcher was dispatched to watch hundreds of hours of videotapes. But the ad itself was not made and aired until later in the fall, when Jordan drew close to Northup.

Then there was the silver bullet that claimed Republican Mike Taylor, who briefly posed a threat to Montana Sen. Max Baucus in 2002.

Democrats knew he had once owned hair care schools in Colorado.

That led to a newspaper ad that mentioned he had once appeared in an infomercial on the noon news in Denver in the 1980s.

That, in turn, led to the basement of a private home where a former television station employee had old videotapes.

For Democrats, the hunt was worth the effort - the party's autumn television commercial showed Taylor wearing an open-front shirt and gold chains, massaging a man's face.

Taylor briefly dropped out of the race. He accused Democrats of saying that "anybody in the beauty and hair fashion industry is homosexual."

But in politics, the old expression goes, if you're explaining, you're losing.

"That," Baucus said, "was a silver bullet."