At 5, GOP Research Group Has Growing Role to Play
After losing their second election to President Obama, Republican officials felt outgunned by their counterparts in the critical arena of opposition research, and sought a new organization to centralize the party’s efforts in that regard and eliminate the gap well in advance of the 2016 election.
Now, five years after the launch of America Rising – which celebrates its anniversary Wednesday – the organization has become the major clearinghouse for opposition research within the GOP. As such, it played a critical role in the last two election cycles tracking Democrats across the country, disrupting campaigns with gaffes caught on video and attacking candidates with increasing breadth and fervor.
But as America Rising celebrates its evolution and successes, operatives there face a critical challenge: With the shoe on the other foot, they are now defending the party in power and facing strong headwinds as they attempt to define and expose Democratic candidates in 2018 and 2020.
“This has felt, from day one of 2017, like a ’16 presidential cycle and it hasn’t really let up,” Joe Pounder, the group’s co-founder and CEO, told RealClearPolitics in an interview at the America Rising offices Rosslyn, Va.
The organization completed research files on and is currently tracking Democratic senators and other candidates in a dozen states. It launched public campaigns against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two potential 2020 candidates who are up for re-election this year, and it is keeping close tabs on between five and 10 other Democrats with presidential ambitions, with plenty more work to come.
“We’re also doing more gubernatorial races than ever before, we’re doing more state [legislative] races than every before,” Pounder said. “We do a lot, at the end of the day, and I think this is the busiest we’ve ever been.”
He anticipates a “heavy field” of potential challengers to Trump, and said his organization will do deep dives into some candidates and more surface-level research on others, while maintaining flexibility for a crowded and unpredictable primary that – similar to Republicans’ experience in 2016 – may elevate an unexpected frontrunner. It’s a vastly different experience than in the last presidential race, when the organization spent several years collecting and releasing information on Hillary Clinton, hoping to methodically dent her image.
“I think everything that our party can do right now to prepare, it needs to be doing,” Pounder said.
The breadth of this task underscores the importance of a central organization guiding it. America Rising partners with individual campaigns, party organizations and outside groups at a corporate level, sharing research and video to assist those other entities’ research departments. It is a mammoth undertaking.
“When you look at the size and scope and volume of work that needs to be done, having a dedicated workforce committed to nothing but that becomes a huge asset to the overall effort,” said Brian Walsh, who runs America First Policies, the main outside group allied with Trump.
Even as Republicans look for America Rising to fill a critical role over the next several years, it remains a relatively new organization within the confines of GOP infrastructure. This will only be its second presidential cycle, its first with a Republican in office.
In the spring of 2013, the Republican National Committee released its oft-cited autopsy report on Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama. The headlines and takeaways focused mostly on the party’s hope to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and make inroads with minority communities – two goals that were largely abandoned when Trump won the primary. But mixed in was another recommendation: to create an outside group “dedicated solely to research” to act as a “clearinghouse” for information attacking Democrats.
That group was already in the works: America Rising officially launched just three days after the RNC released that postmortem, co-founded and run by Pounder, Matt Rhoades (Romney’s former campaign manager) and Byron Koay (who had worked at the RNC). Pounder said there was widespread acknowledgement that Democrats – who had used the opposition firm American Bridge to great effect in 2012 – had an advantage in this realm.
“We knew there was a need because we felt kind of outgunned at the party committee,” said Pounder, who had been the RNC’s research director. “We knew that if we built it, people would come to it and people would gravitate to it.”
The organization immediately began researching and developing narratives on potential 2016 Democrats, particularly Clinton. But it also made a splash in the 2014 midterms, most notably when it posted a clip of Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, who was running for Tom Harkin’s open Senate seat, disparaging fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as “just a farmer who never went to law school.” The clip was an early inflection point in that race, which Republican Joni Ernst won in the fall.
Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, a GOP super PAC that played a major role in the 2010 and 2012 elections, helped Pounder and Rhoades launch America Rising in 2013, becoming their first client and encouraging donors to invest. The Braley video was essential in putting the group on the map.
“The Braley video was a vivid reminder of the importance of doing opposition research well, and it was of course a huge selling point with investors as well as clients,” Law said in an email.
The organization more firmly established itself within the party infrastructure in the 2016 cycle, helping lead opposition research on Clinton while also uncovering clips damaging to Democratic campaigns down the ballot. It’s also become a key weapon for the GOP establishment: The Washington Post reported that America Rising trackers were following Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio, two anti-establishment Republicans running for Senate in Arizona and who many GOP officials fear could cost the party a seat there if one were to win the primary. They were also tracking state Sen. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Danny Tarkanian in Nevada, two Republicans who were challenging incumbent senators, though both have since dropped those challenges in favor of other races.
The group’s alumni illustrate the divergent paths of the Republican Party under Trump. Raj Shah, another co-founder, now works as deputy press secretary in the White House; Tim Miller, yet another co-founder and the group’s first executive director, worked for an anti-Trump super PAC during the 2016 election.
It has evolved rapidly in structure as well. When America Rising launched in 2013, it had 10 researchers and trackers. Now, it employs 70 researchers, 25 full-time trackers and more than 200 part-time trackers across the country. It began as two entities: a super PAC that focused on compiling and pushing out research on Democrats, and a limited liability corporation that coordinated video and research with campaigns and committees. It added a nonprofit side in 2015, and also added Missouri-specific groups, one of which is now allied with Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is running for Senate.
This week, the organization is launching AR Intel, a new subscription service that will disseminate videos and research more directly to staffers, volunteers and activists across the country without needing campaigns and party committees as middlemen.
“We think the people who are out there signing up for campaign email lists, who are on social media, in Facebook groups, are starving for really good information,” said Pounder. “What we want to do through AR Intel is be a platform and a resource for that.”
Still, even as it expands, America Rising faces serious new tests in the coming cycles. Republicans had years to plan for a Clinton campaign and worked methodically to damage her image, with the added benefit of running against the party in power. The diversity and expansiveness of the potential 2020 Democratic field makes that more difficult, and it must be done amid the quick-paced, short-lived news cycles of the Trump administration. Even before that, it must help protect GOP incumbents in the House, and help insurgents defeat well-established Democrats in the Senate.
Pounder acknowledged the difficulty of working against Democratic incumbents who have such strong brands among their constituents, particularly in states that aren’t as deeply red as others, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
“It’s going to take a Hillary Clinton-like effort to change the narratives surrounding them and that effort is underway,” he said.
Pounder also emphasized that the group’s focus has been not just in finding flashy gaffes to spotlight, but in sustained efforts to create narratives around candidates over the long term. He pointed to Republicans’ defeat in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District last week as evidence that failing to define an opponent early and often can prove disastrous, even in favorable areas.
“If you haven’t started, you need to start now,” Pounder said of the message to House Republicans. “You need to be prepared. This is a cycle where anything can happen. The only thing that will definitely hurt is if you’re not ready when it does.”