Scenes From a War Room: Spying on GOP With Top Oppo Hitmen

Mar 7, 2014 11:24am
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A view of the Bridge "war room" in Washington, D.C. Credit: Chris Good, ABC News

“It’s the big donkey to the left,” says a security guard in the lobby of one of the most sophisticated — and potently effective — political opposition research organizations in the country.

The guard stands between the prying eyes of outsiders and operatives inside the top secret war room of the Democratic super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century. A donkey statue adorns the 6th floor entryway in a newish but unassuming office building on Massachusetts Ave. between Chinatown and Union Station in Washington, D.C.

“Bridge,” as it’s known to the inside-the-Beltway set, functions as a kind of nerve center for the Democratic Party’s modern-day hit machine, employing 42 trackers across the country and a nucleus of staff in Washington to monitor Republican candidates and potential White House aspirants.

Opposition research is low-profile by design. While flacks and surrogates do battle on cable, it’s the researchers who supply the substance of those fights: The scandals and esoteric flip-flops that fuel the multimillion-dollar messaging and ad machines.

For Democrats, Bridge is the new epitome of oppo.

WATCH: ABC Goes Inside A Democratic War Room

And over the course of 72 hours this week, Bridge — and Democratic Party operatives everywhere — have fixed their eyes on a mother-lode of material: The Conservative Political Action Conference, the highest-profile national gathering of conservatives annually. It not only draws power brokers and thousands of young conservative activists, but the crème de la crème of GOP speakers. Nearly every potential Republican presidential candidate will speak at CPAC this year, and Bridge will be watching all of them, hoping for Todd-Akin-esque slip-ups and recording policy positions for later use.

ABC News spent several hours embedded at American Bridge’s headquarters on Thursday — the opening day of the conference — in the group’s war room, a bare, stripped-down office suite, lined with TVs and home to a couple dozen young staffers glued to large Apple computer screens. It was a chance to watch the watchers and see how a well-oiled political oppo machine really works.

PRESENT AT THE CREATION

Just after 8:30 a.m., the senior-most operatives of American Bridge gather in a conference room, settling into mod, tulip-style wooden chairs. They’re separated from the main office floor, a long, unfinished-looking room with plywood on the ends of the desk rows, by a blue translucent wall.

The whole place is bare, like what DC imagines a San Francisco tech startup should look like–an open, unpaneled ceiling with silver insulation around air ducts, and spray paint on the exposed-cement floor to indicate where things should go, amid slabs of un-affixed carpeting. Outside the conference room, which overlooks Massachusetts Ave. through half-opened Levelor-style blinds (like a real-estate agent left them that way in haste) young staffers are sitting with their backs to their bosses, fingers tapping their computer keyboards.

 

The style befits this group of operatives, led by President Brad Woodhouse, the gregarious former Democratic National Committee communications director from North Carolina, who never seems to put on formal airs.

Inside the conference room, Executive Director Eddie Vale—the amiable and elfish communications veteran of the labor movement—sits down with Research Director Steven D’Amico, both in dark blazers, tee-shirts, and jeans. Video Production Director Ike Blake and tracking and monitoring director Kelli Farr join them, along with Communications Director Gwen Rocco.

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Staff members at the Democratic opposition research group, American Bridge 21st Century, meet March 6, 2014, to discuss a game plan for monitoring the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major annual gathering of conservatives. Image credit: Chris Good/ABC News

“I think the speech that I’m most looking forward to is Dr. Carson’s,” D’Amico says wryly, referencing the neurosurgeon and Johns Hopkins professor emeritus turned conservative pundit-star. Dr. Benjamin Carson gave Democrats a gift last spring when he invoked bestiality while discussing gay marriage.

“It’s gonna be awesome,” D’Amico says.

It’s the kind of giddy anticipation one might expect from Bridge, especially on a day like today.

PLAN OF ATTACK

Woodhouse starts the planning session by running through his target list. Ted Cruz and any attacks that don’t jibe with his vote against Hurricane Sandy relief. The “how-to-talk-to-women panel,” as Woodhouse puts it—a Saturday discussion entitled “Why Conservatism is Right for Women: How Conservatives Should Talk About Life, Prosperity & National Security.”

“I can’t believe they’re doing this,” Woodhouse says.

 

“Ted Cruz we care about, Paul Ryan we care about,” he adds, running through the day’s speakers. “McConnell, for obvious reasons.” (Later in the day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces a potentially competitive re-election fight in Kentucky, would appear onstage at CPAC brandishing a gun, which he presented to Sen. Tom Coburn.)

Next, Woodhouse and Vale discuss a Washington Post report that Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, will say that the Democratic Party is leaving Americans with “a full stomach and an empty soul” – a reference to free school lunches.

“Just stupid,” Vale declares. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“It is stupid,” says Woodhouse. The two agree that good rebuttals might include highlighting the GOP attempts to cut food-stamp funding and the party’s refusal to extend unemployment insurance without deficit offsets. Rocco notes that only a small fraction of CPAC’s dozens of presenters are female.

The plan for CPAC that Woodhouse sets goes something like this: If there’s a big, noticeable controversy, blast out the video to Bridge’s media list — quickly. If not, find a way to summarize the whole thing in video form (he calls it a “compilation of crazy”).

 

EYES ON THE PRIZE

It’s quiet in the war room.

Not library quiet, but library-with-a-group-project-at-one-table quiet. Bridge’s oppo samurais work four floors below, in a smaller, even-sparer space. Half the room is given over to researches, while the other half is occupied by tracking coordinators and “media monitors,” a row of five twenty-somethings who spend their days watching assigned Republican candidates on television.

Shortly after 9 a.m., Cruz, the Texas senator and Tea Party favorite, takes the CPAC stage, but his speech is not being shown on any of the three major cable networks Bridge keeps fixed on its TVs. (“Ted Cruz can’t be happy that he’s only streaming online,” Woodhouse quips.)

The twenty-somethings watch on giant computer screens and listen with thick Sony headphones, toggling back and forth between CPAC’s online livestream, Gchat windows, and news stories in browser tabs. They’ve gotten up early for this, and there are a few yawns here and there.

For all the attention that’s being paid to CPAC at Bridge headquarters, field staff will also cover it: Bridge’s 42 trackers have split up every hour of the conference, assigned to watch in turns and capture video in Final Cut on laptops, reporting anything notable back to the mothership, according to tracking chief Kelli Farr.

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Staff members at the Democratic opposition research group, American Bridge 21st Century, monitor Republican speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the "war room" of their Washington, offices, March 6, 2014. Image credit: Chris Good/ABC News

With their headphones on, conversation is at a minimum. (“Did anyone hear that?” one staffer asks at one point after conservative commentator Guy Benson makes a joke about Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson. “This guy just said, ‘Fifty Shades of Grayson’” — it’s about as animated as the Bridge team gets on Thursday morning.)

At 9:49 a.m., Rocco, the communication guru and campaign veteran, receives an email from Farr. “Kelli, is that what he just said?” The two confer briefly on Paul Ryan’s comments about how poor children don’t want free lunches. As Ryan basks in mild applause, Rocco explains that the plan is to keep a “running dialogue” over e-mail. If there’s a splashy quote, team leaders will “huddle” and tease out what can be done with the line.

 

MEANS TO AN END

The political hit man — or woman, as the case may be — occupies a unique space in politics, rarely focusing on his or her own team, consumed completely with the movements of the enemy.

For a Democrat, what does watching Republicans all day every day do to one’s brain?

“It depends on the candidate,” says Farr, whose trackers send video in to her for review. “I can’t say I’ve been surprised by anything that’s come out of [Iowa GOP Rep.] Steve King’s mouth over the past couple years.”

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A cardboard cut-out of Vice President Joe Biden graces the Washington office of the Democratic super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, an organization that specializes in candidate tracking and opposition research. Image credit: Chris Good/ABC News

Unlike the campaigns and party committees, rapid-response isn’t Bridge’s primary purpose. The goal isn’t to constantly spam reporters’ inboxes, Rocco acknowledges, although some CPAC moments will be used online the same day.

Bridge is the Democratic counterpart to the Republican firm, America Rising, which launched after the 2012 presidential election cycle. Together the two groups signify a movement away from the old structures of opposition research, and into a new one, wherein the work of tracking the opposing party’s movements–and the creation of thick research “books” containing reams of dirt on potential presidential candidates–takes place not at the party committees but at these two outside groups. And, like America Rising, Bridge’s interest seems to be in paying close enough attention to trip candidates up – not necessarily immediately, but when it’s going to hurt the most.

D’Amico, the head of research, who worked on former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s campaign against Republican George Allen in 2006, says no operative can expect a “macaca” moment like the one Allen stumbled into that year.

“The truth is, you’re never looking for something like that,” D’Amico admits. “If it happens, you use it, but you can’t count on it.”

Instead, D’Amico says, “It’s more about remembering.”

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