How solid research helped push two weak candidates onto the national stage
Understanding what happened in last year’s Senate contests in Missouri and Indiana starts with two indisputable facts: 1) No political strategist could have predicted that Missouri Rep. Todd Akin (R) and Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) would both make offensive statements regarding rape; 2) Those comments were the catalyst for two key Democratic Senate victories in November.
But it wouldn’t be legitimate to just leave it at that. Here’s another indisputable fact: anyone who had bothered to take a cursory look at their records knew Akin and Mourdock were time bombs waiting to explode.
As a Super PAC focused on research, tracking and communications, American Bridge 21st Century took that look early in 2011 and decided we wanted to see both as their party’s nominees. What we saw—and what the National Republican Senatorial Committee ignored—were stark examples of extreme candidates, similar to the bumper crop of 2010, who would have a hard time winning over general election voters.
When coupled with strong Democratic candidates (and a Republican incumbent in Indiana facing an increasingly hostile base) we saw an opportunity for victories despite the tough political landscape for Democrats in both states. Working closely with outside groups such as Majority PAC, Vote Vets and Center Forward—and monitoring the public moves made by the campaigns of Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly—we played a role in two Tea Party takedowns by putting our research expertise to work in order to help both candidates get through the primary process. What follows is a look at how we did it.
Identifying the Targets
Even with Democrats defending 23 of 33 Senate seats, American Bridge started out bullish on our chances to maintain the majority in the upper chamber. Our incumbents were strong, but we would also need to put Republican seats in play Looking beyond obvious targets like Massachusetts, our thought was that identifying a credible Tea Party challenger—whose extremism would ultimately disqualify him or her in a head-to-head with a moderate Democrat—would help us add states to the playing field. It would be no easy task, as we would need to first ensure the Republican won their primary and then prove their extremism over the course of a general election contest.
Mourdock announced his challenge to longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) in February of 2011. Mourdock started with the backing of 77 percent of Indiana’s GOP county chairmen. Soon after, at a Tea Party rally in Madison, Mourdock challenged the crowd to find where Medicare and Social Security were constitutional under Article I, Section 8. It was at that moment we realized the opportunity a Mourdock primary win presented.
In Missouri, we knew Sen. Claire McCaskill was a savvy politician but would be heavily targeted by conservatives. From the start, our preferred opponent in the crowded primary field was Akin, who had claimed in the summer of 2011 that “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.” Initially, it seemed unlikely Akin would survive his primary, just as the odds appeared long for Mourdock. We decided to get to work quickly.
Dick Lugar Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
In Indiana, the early research and tracking material we secured on Mourdock turned up intriguing instances of extremism, but our initial focus was on Lugar. His last competitive race had been in 1982, meaning there was no opposition research footprint. Building a narrative from scratch, our inclination was to focus on parts of his record at odds with Tea Party objectives. One example: during the debt ceiling fight we released a memo detailing Lugar’s previous votes to raise it and his support of irresponsible budgets during the Bush administration. Yet the respect most Hoosiers had for Lugar proved a significant barrier. A National Research Poll in early 2012 showed Lugar leading Mourdock 55 percent to 30 percent.
Lugar’s downfall ironically began a few days earlier, when the conservative news outlet Daily Caller published “Richard Lugar Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” explaining that Lugar sold his Indianapolis home shortly after taking office in 1977. He and his wife remained registered to vote at the address 35 years later. We highlighted the facts in a web video featuring footage of Lugar’s former address and his current home in McLean, Va. It helped bring the residency issue to the attention of the Indiana press. WISH-TV cited our web video when they questioned Lugar.
His campaign’s clumsy response, which likened the residency issue to that faced by members of the U.S. military serving abroad, brought derision from local reporters who identified Lugar’s lack of residence in the state as a potential campaign issue. We worked to encourage his primary opponent to capitalize on the opening, tweeting our video at Mourdock’s campaign. A week later, they released their own video that mirrored ours.
Looking to further amplify the issue, we sought visually entertaining ways of presenting our research. We produced four additional web videos over the next month and used Facebook’s new timeline feature to tell the story of Lugar’s absence from the state. We created the microsite VirginiaIsForLugars.com, a play on the “Virginia is for Lovers” tourism motto, and encouraged the progressive communications organization Progress Virginia to push the narrative of Lugar as the state’s third senator.
By mid-March, not living in the state he represented became more than a problem of perception for Lugar. First the Marion County Election Board declared Lugar and his wife ineligible to vote in his home precinct. Then American Bridge discovered that Lugar had violated Senate rules by erroneously billing taxpayers for hotel stays in Indianapolis, impermissible because on official documents he still listed his old address as his residency. We alerted national press outlets, and Politico soon thereafter inquired with Lugar’s office.
Initially, Lugar agreed to pay back $4,500, based on his own accounting, but after Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called on the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate, the Senate administrators found that he actually owed more than $14,000. While not that much money in the grand scheme, it helped solidify the image that Lugar had turned his back on Indiana.
In the final weeks before the primary, Mourdock rapidly narrowed the gap. American Bridge teamed with Majority PAC to run our web video “Dick Lugar: Ex-Hoosier” as an online ad. As Mourdock secured a primary victory, he identified the residency issue as a pivotal point in the race.
Show Me Something
In Missouri, the primary field was in flux for much of 2011 before settling on a trio of flawed candidates. Sarah Steelman had previously won statewide as treasurer, but her early fundraising numbers lagged. John Brunner was considered a successful businessman who could self-fund, but our monitoring of his early appearances on conservative talk radio indicated he was woefully unprepared to discuss policy.
Akin’s stances on various social and economic issues, meanwhile, were well documented within our office. In fact, the early research and tracking footage we compiled on Akin was the source of several internal disagreements. We could either alert the media immediately to his more extreme comments, or hold them in the unlikely hope he’d win the primary. Cooler and smarter heads prevailed; we decided to focus our efforts before the August primary on Steelman and Brunner.
As it turned out, Steelman and Brunner proved incompetent at leveling attacks against each other or Akin. When Brunner flubbed a clear shot during a debate to attack Steelman after she wrongly denied ever having voted for a tax increase, it was American Bridge that released a memo showing she had indeed voted to create a retail pharmacy tax. And it was our research that supplemented a St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of Brunner to show he had nearly driven his family’s business to bankruptcy.
Akin won the Missouri primary on August 7, 2012. The next day we caught him telling a radio interviewer that he wanted to ban the morning-after pill because he considered it abortion. Also asked whether he opposed abortion in cases of rape or incest, or with the life of the mother at risk, Akin claimed he’d prefer to save both the mother and child but neglected to address rape. For that, we’d have to wait another week.
He Said What? Part 1
On the morning of August 17th, our Missouri tracker was watching Akin’s appearance on the Jaco Report when Akin made his now-infamous assertion: “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Though actually taped on Friday, even the interviewer seemed unaware of what had been said. Our tracker submitted a report immediately, highlighting the offending section. Our communications team quickly moved the clip to political reporters, and Talking Points Memo was the first outlet up with the story. We amplified the story through social media, and by that night it was a national headline as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican Senate candidates hoped to distance themselves from Akin.
Akin’s bumbling response ensured that the story stayed relevant for the duration of the campaign. It ensnared vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who had co-sponsored legislation with Akin to redefine “forcible rape” and brought unwanted attention to the abortion plank in the party platform. After the comments, McCaskill moved from a five-point deficit to a lead she never relinquished.
The staying power of Akin’s gaffe was that it wasn’t a fluke. Our archives held hours of tracking footage highlighting Akin’s extreme views on issues ranging from voting rights to Social Security. We decided to post all of it on our website, AkinTV.com, bringing a renewed focus by reporters and bloggers to other comments he had made.
He Said What? Part 2
Just as Akin’s remarks were becoming old news, Mourdock reignited the fire on October 23rd at a Senate debate by expressing his view that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
The remarks immediately drew attention in Indiana and at American Bridge where we quickly capitalized on an idea to garner national attention. Earlier that week Romney had recorded an ad for Mourdock. We had already been working on a video juxtaposing his endorsement with Mourdock extremism and now had the perfect hook. Mourdock’s statement wound up in every major Romney article that next day.
While Mourdock’s comments were the tipping point leading to Democrat Joe Donnelly’s victory, his other extreme views had already made the race unexpectedly competitive. From the night of his primary victory forward we had highlighted Mourdock’s opposition to the auto rescue that saved thousands of jobs in Indiana and his calls for deep cuts in the military and education. We built a microsite, WhoIsRichardMourdock.com, that focused on those issues, and in mid-October we partnered with Vote Vets to launch a digital campaign highlighting Mourdock’s views, targeting moderate Republicans who had supported Lugar during the primary.
In Their Own Words
In both Indiana and Missouri, our closing argument to voters was made through talking mailers that played audio of the candidate’s own words when opened. The technology is popular in singing birthday cards, but is relatively new to the political arena. The rape comments provided the initial attention grab, but both cards used additional audio to demonstrate both candidates’ extremism.
We highlighted Akin’s claim that student loans were “stage three cancer of socialism” and Mourdock’s comments suggesting the elimination of one of the military branches. Though we only targeted independent women, the explosive content and innovative technology of these mailers generated extensive local and national press coverage.
Ultimately, even in the age of Super PACs, candidates matter—specifically, nominating ones that don’t talk about rape. But quite frankly, these two races were about much more than that. You can’t count on a candidate to say something stupid, but the advance preparation of researching and tracking early in a primary can provide a pretty clear indication of whose extremism will be exposed when introduced to general election voters.
Republicans helped Democrats retain control of the Senate this cycle by allowing these candidates to win primaries. But Democrats have helped themselves by doing the work necessary to be in a position to identify and capitalize on such mistakes.
Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, is a veteran of Capitol Hill, state government and several U.S. Senate and presidential elections.