How political dirt on an opponent gets shared with a candidate

Citizens United is the gift that keeps on giving, if by “giving” we mean contorting our system of money and politics into ever-stranger and amusing pretzels so that politicians and deep-pocketed donors can evade the limits that Congress itself tried to impose on their relationship.

The latest wrinkle, as discussed in a recent post by Nathan Gonzales on the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, is a new way for “independent” groups to hide their “opposition research” in plain sight so that candidates’ campaign committee (with whom, under Citizens United, the “independent groups” aren’t allowed to “coordinate” their activities) can find it and use it.

To back up: “Opposition research” (aka “oppo research”) is the standard euphemism for dirt that a campaign digs up on its opponent, for a variety of uses including to broadcast in campaign advertising. It can be valuable, when it’s time to “go negative,” and it can also be a lot of work to dig it up. There are plenty of political operatives who specialize in oppo research.

The strange world of Citizens United (and other Supreme Court cases leading up to it) ruled that, while an individual citizen can be limited in how much he or she can contribute to a candidate’s campaign committee, no limits can be placed on how much certain kinds of “independent groups” can raise and spend to affect the outcome of an election. But to minimize corruption or even the appearance of corruption, the “independent groups” cannot “coordinate” their activities with the candidate’s own campaign committee.

(The Supreme Court case is named for the plaintiff in the suit, which called itself “Citizens United.” In that instance, the “Citizens” were “United” to publicize negative information about Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she was expected to be the Democratic nominee.)

Since then, the game has evolved, cycle by cycle, into a thinly disguised regimen that allows such groups to, for example, make and air negative ads against my opponent, as long as the independent group and I are able to avoid acts of outright “coordination,” like calling me up and telling me what the ads are going to say, or asking me which TV markets would benefit most from the ads. (This has the added advantage to me, the candidate, of being able to disclaim any responsibility for the ads, no matter how vicious or misleading, and the ads don’t have to end with my voice saying I am responsible for the ad.)

And, by the way, “independent” committees aren’t just outside groups, like Citizens United was. The campaign committees organized by the two major parties have this “independent” status. We’re talking here about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which help candidates in congressional races all around the country. Except they can’t coordinate with those candidates’ campaigns.

So, the new wrinkle, to which I alluded above, goes like this: The “independent” committee can take on all the trouble and expense of collecting the (possibly negative) research on my opponent. But they can’t give me that research for whatever benefit I might gain from it. No, they can’t give it to me, but it turns out they can post it on the World Wide Web in a place where I am able to find it, but without them having to tell me that it’s there (because that might look like “coordination.”)

 As Gonzales wrote:

“The DCCC buries the information on its own site, DCCC.org, under “Races 2016” at the bottom of the home page. Readers can click on the map of the United States for race-specific information or look under “Recent Updates,” where information for five races, including California’s 24th District, Virginia’s 10th District, Nevada’s 3rd District, and Minnesota’s 8th District, is currently posted.”

Yes, that was a Minnesota reference at the end there. As of now, only the Rick Nolan v. Stewart Mills race in Minnesota’s 8th District is covered by the new wrinkle. Perhaps that’s because the oppo researchers already had, left over from the 2014 version of the same matchup, so much material on Stewart Mills.

So if you go to DCCC.org, and scroll down to the bottom of the home page, and click on “Races 2016,” you’ll get a map of the United States. And if you click on Minnesota, you’ll get a link to Stewart Mills. And if you click on that link, you’ll get 240 pages of material, none of it flattering to Mills.

The preface of the 240-page “research book” on 8th District Republican candidate Stewart Mills III.

If you are just a very motivated 8th District voter who is willing to read all that while trying to decide whether to vote for Nolan or Mills, then the DNC has done you a service.

But if you are working for the re-election of Rick Nolan and go through those same links, you will have a voluminous overview of potentially negative information, to put to whatever use you might choose. Legally. Because you did it without “coordinating” with the DNC.

The Republicans do the same thing, although, Gonzales notes:

“Instead of information being published on the National Republican Congressional Committee site, Republicans created a microsite, DemocratFacts.org, not linked directly from the NRCC’s site.”

So far, that site has only one race covered. But stay tuned, come back later and see what dirt the Repubs have on the Dems, and remember, don’t coordinate.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/09/2016 - 10:01 am.

    Immunize the Electorate

    Nice departure to “big box” topics here, Eric. Thanks.

    Aren’t we getting more cognizant of such mega-money maneuvering? I’d at least hope so. Today’s column certainly helps.

    As for Nolan/Mills oppo vaults: Was Nolan so vital to machinery operations, or was Mills a true threat?
    I watched, listened and wondered, not particularly caring much about either side of that one.

    [I do see that Mills finally has a proper image haircut, but don’t know if it relates to any truth in advertising reform.]

  2. Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/09/2016 - 10:14 am.

    The Dirt Locker

    Good to see people are working hard to help fulfill the internet’s early promise of being the greatest global communications vehicle since the printing press and, of course, television.

    Speaking of which, with the nearly unlimited resources now available, so many viewing options and so much need for quality 24/7 content, how far away can the creation of the Dirt Network be?

    Imagine the possibilities! It could (would?) not only be an anonymous donations (and pharmaceutical and survivalist gear advertising) goldmine but one of the most effective (self-actualizing) voter suppression tools in history!

    Thanks for sharing the good news and handy web locations, Eric. I’ve bookmarked them and the next time I’m having a day in which I’m not feeling ticked off or depressed enough I’ll be sure to check them out.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/09/2016 - 03:31 pm.

    Laughable, that the Republicans are still so uneasy with the 21st century and telecommunications that they believe it necessary to try to hide their opposition research web page from any tie or link to the party! I don’t understand that, unless it’s just knee-jerk response based on their history of hiding Black Money contributions and keeping donors anonymous in most of their electoral activities. They seem not to know how to be upfront about what they’re doing and how they do it.

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