Smack dab in the middle of this jolly holiday season, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus set political tongues wagging when he told radio bomb-thrower Hugh Hewitt that the party’s oppo-research machine is already combing through the metaphorical trash of a certain blond Democratic presidential possible. (Hint: It’s not Elizabeth Warren.)
Faster than you can say “Hillaryland,” Priebus’s words were tweeted, blogged, and otherwise splashed about as though the man had just admitted to sacrificing live chickens in the basement of Karl Rove’s house.
The more appropriate response would have been, “Well, duh!”
Of course Republicans are hard at work prepping for 2016. They’d be nuts not to be. “It’s standard operating procedure in this media environment,” observes Kevin Madden, a former campaign spokesman for Mitt Romney. “The only real surprise would be if research work wasn’t being done.”
One of the big lessons the GOP took from its epic 2012 fail: Define your opponent early and often and—most important—before he (or she) manages to define you. “There were certainly lessons learned from the 2012 campaign,” says Tim Miller, who toiled as RNC spokesman during the cycle. “The Obama campaign did a really good job starting early in building up infrastructure both for its ground campaign and from a data standpoint—both of which have been covered ad nauseam—but also from an opposition research standpoint in defining Mitt Romney.” Not that Team Obama labored alone, says Miller, noting that the campaign was richly aided in its mudslinging by the Democratic National Committee and by the fledgling oppo-research outfit American Bridge 21st Century.
Republicans have no intention of getting out-slung again. In March, Miller, along with ex-Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades and ex-RNC political director Joe Pounder, joined forces to give their team an oppo-research firm of its own, America Rising. The group’s aim, explains executive director Miller, is to create a research infrastructure that can be applied to any race. Of the 30 or so current staffers (with more to come!), some are hard at work on midterm races, such as the effort to unseat Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR). Researchers also are keeping tabs on Democratic rising stars, including Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and the Castro brothers. “We’re cataloging all the video of them and all of their quotes now,” says Miller, “so we don’t get caught unprepared like we did with President Obama—someone who rose very quickly.”
But who are we kidding? The scream-inducing specter haunting Republican dreams is President Hillary Rodham Clinton. It may be absurdly early in the election cycle. The first-lady-turned-senator-turned-secretary-of-state may ultimately decide not to run. But until further notice, Clinton is the 800-pound badass silverback whom Republicans are dead set on keeping out of the Oval Office at all costs. So it is never too early to start stripping the shine off her star.
To that end, just a few weeks after its rollout, America Rising and its sister PAC launched a special project and fundraising portal wholly devoted to stopping Clinton—named, intuitively enough, Stop Hillary 2016. “We need to begin to define Hillary now and have a group focused entirely on that so that we’re not missing opportunities to hold her accountable,” says Miller.
America Rising is “very, very focused on Hillary every single day. Our research department is as well,” RNC press secretary Kirsten Kukowski stresses to me via email.
That means not just digging through old speeches and interviews and law firm records and files from the Clinton presidential library (yes, America Rising has staff on the ground in Arkansas) for potentially inflammatory statements or positions but also reanalyzing her record in the context of today’s news climate. For instance, offers Miller, “Hillary might have said something about NSA oversight in the 2000s that might not have rung any bells in 2008.”
Or take health care. Combing through old video, Miller’s researchers found a 2007 clip of Clinton assuring voters that, under her health care reform plan, they could keep their doctors and insurance. America Rising snapped up that remark, tied it to Obama’s discredited “If you like your plan, you can keep it” promise, and hung the whole thing around Clinton’s neck. As StopHillary2016.org now trumpets, “It was Hillary who first made the ‘if you like your insurance, you can keep it’ promise. And as first lady, it was Hillary who pursued big government health care even vaster in scope than President Obama.” The group also posted the Clinton clip on its Tumblr.
Seem a tad excessive? OCD, even? Maybe. But such obsessiveness has already proved effective. In late July, when both NBC and CNN announced film projects focused on Hillary, the RNC’s Priebus went ballistic. Inside of a week, he had fired off open letters of complaint to the networks’ chairmen and hit the chat show circuit to decry media bias. On August 12, the RNC began rolling out a four-part series of pushback ads titled “Will the Hillary films include...” that cheekily wondered if CNN and NBC would “forget” to explore certain ticklish topics, such as Benghazi, the SEC probe into Clintonite Terry McAuliffe’s business dealings with Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham, the scandal that swallowed Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, and Bill Clinton’s “pardon & clemency scandals.” On August 16, RNC officials unanimously voted to exclude both CNN and NBC from the 2016 primary debates. By the end of September, both networks had nixed their Hillary projects.
As far as Republicans are concerned, to beat back the Hillary threat, there is no such thing as too much—or too soon.