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How the ‘tracker’ became strangest, most important job in campaign politics

Minnesota is home to some of the most contested partisan races in the nation this year, which means it is also home to a lot of trackers: people whose job it is to follow the opposing side’s candidate — and recording everything they do or say.

Research Director John Skonieczny of Alliance for a Better Minnesota, center right, filming the governor candidate forum at FarmFest this summer.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It’s been called the strangest job on the campaign, the hardest job on the campaign and the most mind-numbing job on the campaign. But unless you work in and around the efforts to elect people to public office, you might not even know it exists.

It’s the tracker: the person whose job it is to follow the opposing side’s candidate — and record everything they do or say. Usually staffed by a young campaign worker, the job is one piece of what’s known as opposition research, the gathering of information about candidates that might make people less willing to vote for them.

With Minnesota home to some of the most contested partisan races in the nation this year, including four targeted congressional seats, it is also home to a lot of trackers across the political spectrum.

“I think there’s a tendency to view it as dirty politics, but it’s not,” said Gina Countryman, a veteran of many Republican campaigns in Minnesota who is currently executive director of the Minnesota Action Network. “It’s part of transparency in campaigns. Now that everybody can snap an event and share what’s being said, there’s even more value in having that transparency. You don’t get to have multiple, different messages anymore.”

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Everything will be recorded

No trackers currently working in Minnesota were willing to talk about the job. But people who have been trackers — or directed tracking operations — say the concept has evolved since first coming into use at the turn of the Millennium. Cameras have gotten smaller, editing easier and transmission back to headquarters a click away.

As the use of trackers has become more common, hostility toward them has turned into grudging acceptance, and both sides now use trackers as part of their research operations. Skilled candidates know that everything they say could well be recorded: by trackers, their own supporters or both. And they know there is little point to calling out trackers, many of whom become familiar features of their campaign events. “Candidates have become a lot more cautious,” said state DFL research director William Davis.

That means it is less likely that a candidate will be featured in the type of “what-are-they-trying-to-hide” videos produced by Republicans of Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone that looped together all the times they tried to block the cameras or views of tracker cameras. It also means that it is less likely that candidates will have what came to be known as a “Macaca Moment.”

That the name of the incident that exposed the non-political world to the very existence of trackers. It happened in 2006, when George Allen, a onetime Virginia governor, was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate. At a campaign event, Allen introduced a Democratic tracker named S.R. Sadarth, an Indian-American, as “Macaca” and welcomed him to “America and the real world of Virginia.” The term “Macaca” is a slur in some European communities toward African immigrants, and Allen apologized for what was at least inexplicable and more likely racist. Allen, who had been considered a presidential contender in 2008, instead lost his Senate re-election bid.

There are a handful of other well-known campaign moments caught on audio or video — Mitt Romney’s assertion that he would never be the choice of the 47 percent who don’t pay taxes or Barack Obama’s reference to bitter voters who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” But neither of those were captured by trackers. Romney was recorded by a bartender working a private event and Obama was recorded by a citizen journalist working for Huffington Post who said she was a supporter of Obama.

Noticing inconsistencies

Most of what is collected by trackers is routine, repetitive and destined for a computer file that is never viewed again. Which means the job requires trackers who can sleuth out where candidates will be and then put up with the tedium and isolation of the work. At the same time, trackers must be politically savvy enough to notice inconsistencies and contradictions in an opponent’s stump speech to make sure it gets flagged.

Michael Brodkorb, a former longtime GOP campaign staffer and currently a writer, was the tracker for Rudy Boschwitz’s campaign against Paul Wellstone in 1996. By the end of the campaign, Brodkorb said he knew Wellstone’s speeches by heart, and would notice any alterations. By 2002, Brodkorb was directing research for the state GOP and supervising the trackers following Democratic governor candidate Roger Moe and Independent Party candidate Tim Penny.

Late in the campaign, Brodkorb said they decided that Penny — who hadn’t reacted well to being tracked — wasn’t a factor and was no longer worth the expense of tracking. “I later had a conversation with some staff on his campaign, and as much as they had loathed the trackers, when they knew the trackers weren’t following them anymore it was kind of a punch to the gut because they realized they weren’t going to win,” Brodkorb said.

A tracker recording gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A tracker recording gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty while he was being interviewed by Don Davis of Forum Newspapers after the FarmFest forum.
Writer Michael Kinsley once wrote that the definition of a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth, and a big part of a tracker’s job is to make sure such moments are captured on video. Said Countryman: “Politicians are known for catering their remarks for an audience and can be more forthcoming on issues if they are before someone they are comfortable with.”

Brodkorb said there is a tendency to tailor campaign comments geographically, taking slightly different positions in Mankato than in Minneapolis, which is why he always wanted video of both.

The DFL’s Davis agreed that the purpose is to be familiar with the main campaign talking points so as to be aware of any inconsistencies. “We want to know what people believe and what they support,” Davis said. “Then, if they’re talking to you, maybe what they’re saying is very different from what they’re telling their people in Wabasha.”

Tracking can also present some risks to the tracker. Brodkorb said when he was directing research efforts he would sometimes assign himself to the events where things were likely to get dicey. “You’re on the front lines,” he said. “Sometimes at partisan events, at rallies and events when they are speaking to their supporters, it’s like a sporting event and that can bring out some emotions. People have to be careful.”

Davis, who said his first job in politics was as a tracker during the 2016 election, agreed that things can get tense. He recalled hoping no one recognized him at a contentious state legislative nominating convention that he was monitoring. It was at night in a rural church surrounded by not much else. “People were fired up and they were angry. There was a lot of emotion in the room,” Davis said. “It would have been a long way to my car if someone busted me.”

‘Holding candidates accountable’

Nationally, two large-scale research operations dominate the field. First is American Bridge, which was one of the first Democratic Super PACs formed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which lifted limits on independent expenditures in campaigns.

American Bridge conducts research into GOP candidates — voting records, public records, press coverage and tracking — and shares what it finds with news media, social media and Democratic political committees. Their work might be the basis for news coverage or the types of negative campaign ads that have begun appearing with more frequency in Minnesota. The group was involved in the dissemination of some of U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis’ old talk radio broadcasts. The group has more than 40-trackers in the field across the U.S. and is active in 75 races, including the four contested U.S. House races in Minnesota, a spokesperson said.

In 2012, Republican donors created America Rising, which does similar work as American Bridge but against Democratic candidates. In addition to work on Minnesota’s four contested House races, American Rising has a page on its website devoted to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running for attorney general.

“Minnesota is ground zero for targeted congressional campaigns in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 8th districts and we’re focused on giving voters as much information on the Democratic candidate’s policies as possible,” said consultant Kirsten Kukowski, who is directing America Rising in Minnesota. “Tracking is really important to hold candidates accountable to past statements. Our efforts are to work with reporters to get information to the public. Once it is public, it can be used in ads.”

Both groups use similar language to describe the mission. American Bridge claims to be “committed to holding Republicans accountable for their words and actions and helping you ascertain when Republican candidates are pretending to be something they’re not.” While America Rising PAC’s “sole purpose is to hold Democrats accountable and expose any hidden hypocrisy.”

In Minnesota, Alliance for a Better Minnesota has a research arm that includes tracking. Research Director John Skonieczny declined to be interviewed for this story, but he isn’t shy about what he does, showing himself tracking Tim Pawlenty on his Twitter page. On the other side, Spencer Krier is a well-known tracker of DFL candidates who works for multiple Republican-leaning organizations, including the business group the Minnesota Jobs Coalition.

Passive or aggressive

There are two types of trackers, the flies on the wall and the provocateurs. Last month, a tracker working for the Minnesota Jobs Coalition approached Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman and asked her about assault allegations made against Minnesota Attorney General candidate Keith Ellison.

DFL U.S. House candidate Angie Craig was confronted by a tracker as she was going in to file for office in June: “Do you support Nancy Pelosi’s tax increase?” the tracker asked. Craig ignored him.

State Democrats even had a nickname for the tracker who confronted Craig, who was the same guy who once followed congressional candidate Dean Phillips at a five-foot distance for the length of a parade route. Because he sometimes tries to blend in, wearing Bernie Sanders t-shirts and even an Antifa headband, he became known as “Antifa Rob.”

“His job was to harass and get a bad reaction,” Davis said.

Those are the exceptions, however. Most trackers set-up and record without asking questions on their own. “I’m in favor of getting footage and audio,” Countryman said. “That’s your first priority. I think if you want a question posed to them, it is better that your tracker is recording someone else asking the question.”

“I never instructed a tracker to ask a question nor would I have ever asked a question,” said Brodkorb. “The role is to go out and observe. Be there, be safe, be polite.” It can be tense enough at some events without confronting candidates, he said.

Said the DFL’s Davis: “I don’t see a whole lot of value in showing up, shoving a camera in someone’s face and being obnoxious. We don’t find that useful.”

Spencer Krier, a Republican tracker
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
At left: Spencer Krier, a Republican tracker, recording Gov. Mark Dayton and Erin Murphy at a campaign event in St. Paul.
But candidates need to both expect that they will be tracked and learn to not get upset. “Anytime a candidate steps off the porch, they should assume they’re being recorded,” Brodkorb said.

And Davis said he wrote a memo for DFL candidates on how to handle trackers. “I tell everyone, just be courteous. Don’t be rude to them. Don’t yell or swear at them because A, they want you to do that, but B, you’re gonna have a relationship with this guy, you’re gonna be dealing with him for the next 14 months,” Davis said. “Just do your thing and wave hello to them and that’s all.”

A job that can go from boring to tense in an instant isn’t for everyone. Tracking tends to be an entry level campaign job, as it was for Davis. John-Paul Yates, the re-election campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen began that way as well.

For those who enjoy it, it can lead to moments like one in 2016 when Davis was monitoring a GOP convention-watch party at a St. Louis Park bar. At one point, the M.C. announced a trivia contest with a prize to the person who knew the answer.

“Who is the speaker of the Minnesota House and what town is he from?” Davis was surprised that no one was shouting out what he considered an easy question. Finally, he whispered “Kurt Daudt, Crown” to the woman standing next to him. Rather than claim the prize herself, she shouted “He Knows,” while pointing to Davis.

And what did he win? A vintage “Reagan-Bush” hat that he says he sometimes wears in the DFL offices.

Correction: This story has been corrected to remove a statement that Walz-Flanagan campaign manager Carrie Lucking had been a tracker.