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With election on horizon, each party is tracking the opposition

In the midst of a busy 2012 election cycle, Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's offhand remark to a local television station about what constituted "legitimate rape" might have slipped under the radar. But Akin was a prime target for an opposition research powerhouse, American Bridge 21st Century, and their Akin tracker was on the ball.

Within hours, the Democratic "super PAC" had uploaded the clip to YouTube and pushed it to reporters — ensuring that it blew up on Twitter and headed to the top of national news. Akin's candidacy was doomed.

For Republicans, who had no research outfit to match American Bridge, it was one of the searing lessons of 2012. Democrats had done their homework early, and relentlessly shadowed vulnerable Republican candidates — creating a trove of useful nuggets to knock them off-message, to great effect.

Nine months before the November election, the 100-person staff of American Bridge has now fanned out across 37 states, with 40 full-time trackers and 25 researchers collecting every utterance by their 2014 Republican targets in House, Senate and governor's races. They are simultaneously building their books on the 2016 Republican hopefuls, dispatching 169 records requests to local, state and federal officials on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie alone.

But for the first time, a Republican counterpart, America Rising, is engaged in a similar effort, rapidly expanding a team that now includes 11 full-time trackers, 23 part-time trackers and 22 staffers at headquarters. They are monitoring candidate events and interviews in 20 states, with plans to move into 10 more.

At the same time, America Rising's "Hillary team" is creating an audio and video database that will catalog the former secretary of State's more than three decades in public life. The effort goes beyond tagging the potential presidential candidate's most controversial endeavors and statements to marking images of Clinton grimacing, shrugging or rubbing her eyes — all to make them available for television ads by groups opposing her. America Rising is also working on a stophillary2016.org website that will serve as a portal for their anti-Clinton research.

American Bridge, formed in 2011 as a super PAC with a nonprofit arm that raised a combined $16 million in the 2012 cycle, remains far ahead when it comes to staffing and organization. But America Rising co-founder Tim Miller said the Republican group hoped to have the resources by the end of the 2014 cycle to "match or surpass" the Democrats' research and tracking efforts.

"The midterms are rife with Democrats who are vulnerable to an aggressive research campaign," said Miller, who joined Mitt Romney's former campaign manager Matt Rhoades and Republican operative Joe Pounder to form America Rising last spring. And as the organization looks to 2016, he said, the goal is to "start defining the Democrat front-runner early and relentlessly."

American Bridge, which hopes to raise $17 million this cycle and increasingly turn its research focus toward 2016, is well underway with its own spinoff — "Correct the Record" — to defend potential 2016 presidential Democratic candidates, including Clinton.

"This cycle we have the luxury of having learned from experience," said American Bridge communications director Chris Harris. "We've found what works, what didn't work."

While America Rising cannot yet point to the ruins of a candidacy like Akin's or a war chest like that of American Bridge, recent Federal Election Commission filings suggest that political groups, along with Republican donors, appear to be steadily getting behind their effort.

The complex financial structures of both American Bridge and America Rising make it difficult to see exactly how the organizations are spending their money, or who their donors are. Nonprofits like that attached to American Bridge can legally conceal their donors. America Rising was set up as a corporation that provides research directly to political groups and campaign committees, meaning that its clients are also largely shielded; but its political arm can publicize that research.

In the six months ending in December, America Rising's corporate arm disclosed that it had taken in at least $1.3 million in revenue from big-name clients such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, American Crossroads, American Action Network, Young Guns and Citizens United.

Over the same six months, America Rising's political action committee, which must report its donors to the Federal Election Commission, raised $477,665 — including $100,000 from the Romney super PAC Restore Our Future and $150,000 from individual donors.

Among the donors was William C. Kunkler, an executive at Chicago-based CC Industries Inc. who said he was appalled by the GOP's research deficiencies in 2012.

"Mitt got smacked on stuff that was just ridiculous. ... I was dumbfounded," said Kunkler, who co-chaired Romney's finance network in Illinois. "The facts were so badly distorted on Mitt, but there wasn't that organization to provide the solid research [to rebut those attacks]. It was an Achilles' heel."

While the Republican researchers are focused on Clinton, American Bridge is building its dossiers and video archives on at least eight possible 2016 Republican contenders: Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, current governors John Kasich of Ohio, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Ted Newton, who handled the research for Romney's vice presidential vetting process in 2012, said that in the new age of research-driven campaigns there was more than enough work to go around.

"The amount of information that you can get out quickly is a hundred times more than it was just 10 years ago ... and that begets the need for more information," said Newton, who heads Washington, D.C.-based Gravity Strategic Communications, a Republican firm specializing in research.

He noted that if Republicans were up against a candidate like Clinton in 2016, they would face an extraordinarily labor-intensive effort to delve into her public actions, her political past and her family's foundation.

"The reality is that you almost have to start from scratch," Newton said. "What are the things we think that might change a voter's mind today? ... Is there something out there that perhaps wasn't important 10 or 15 years ago that might be important in the light of day today? You have to look with fresh eyes."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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