How American Bridge Plans to Troll the 2016 Republican Field

Some of these Republicans may not be ready for the primaries, but opposition researchers certainly are.

Potential Republican candidates for president: Ask not for whom the super PAC trolls. It trolls for thee.

On Monday, the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century released a 133-page scouting report (194 pages if you include the endnotes!) meant to be a "media guide to the Republican presidential bench."

The report itself does not offer many titillating details about the 2016 hopefuls—a deep dive into Sen. Marco Rubio's alleged misuse of the Florida state Republican Party's credit card, anyone?—but it does offer a glimpse into how Democratic-aligned groups are laying out their plans of attack for 2016.

Alongside boldface names like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker, the report throws in a few Republicans who may elicit a "huh?" from political observers.

Among the 20 Republicans profiled in the report are backbench national figures like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Last week, Portman said he won't run in 2016.

What Bridge is hoping to provide is a primer for reporters, political news junkies, and Democratic operatives alike on the Republicans it thinks will be threats in 2016. For Democrats, it's a reference guide for people who will eventually be commissioning polls, organizing focus groups, and crafting negative TV ads about these Republicans.

The report includes dossiers on each candidate, including sections on "demeanor," "issues at a glance," and "what to watch." The "what to watch" section includes helpful gotcha questions that trackers and reporters can goad Republicans with.

A sampling:

  • "Will Walker try to end collective bargaining nationally if elected president?"
  • "Does Paul consider a return to the gold standard to be feasible?"
  • "Will Christie's administration adhere to the state's open records law and comply with outstanding requests before he formally launches a presidential campaign?"
  • "Will Cruz's prior Canadian citizenship cause him problems among so-called 'birthers' in the Republican base who questioned President Obama's citizenship?"

And then there is this trifecta of hypotheticals for neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-darling Dr. Ben Carson:

  • "As a medical professional, will Carson condemn Rand Paul and Chris Christie's fear-mongering on Ebola?"
  • "As a medical professional, does Ben Carson repudiate Michele Bachmann's position on vaccines?"
  • "Will Carson compare other government programs to slavery?"

Trolling aside, American Bridge is a formidable research operation. Between 2012 and 2014, the organization tripled the number of events its trackers covered, from 3,000 to more than 9,000. It's also a well-heeled organization: David Brock, a journalist-turned-Democratic operative, founded Bridge in 2010 with $4 million of seed money.

American Bridge isn't without similarly named opposition. America Rising PAC, which tracked Democrats in the midterm elections, is now focusing its attention like a laser on Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner. In June, America Rising came out with its rebuttal to Clinton's book, Hard Choices, a 112-page document cheekily titled Failed Choices.

In this way, conservative groups like America Rising have a dual advantage and risk: They have the advantage of being able to focus on one candidate who has already been thoroughly vetted and in the public eye for most of her life. On the other hand, if a relatively unknown progressive of the Barack Obama mold becomes the surprise front-runner in 2016, oppo-research groups could be caught unawares.

"Rising is Johnny One-Note when it comes to their work. If someone else were to emerge, I imagine they'd be caught flat-footed," Brad Woodhouse, American Bridge's president, told National Journal. "We're not going to be caught flat-footed."

Woodhouse said it is a challenge to have so many people to look at, but that it's a necessary part of Bridge's operation.

"Without spilling the beans specifically, some of these people we have been tracking and/or researching since 2011," Woodhouse said. Asked to name names, he simply said, "I don't want to flatter any of 'em."

Woodhouse acknowledged that his group is looking at a vast field of candidates, many of whom may not even make it into the primaries. But he said that now—with midterm state and congressional races over—is the perfect time to cast a wide net.

"Right now, we're able to really sink our teeth into the presidential work—both the tracking and the research," Woodhouse said. "What we pride ourselves on here is being comprehensive."

Tim Miller, America Rising's executive director, did not mince words when asked how Bridge's briefing stacks up to their own oppo work.

"Hillary's paid-speech rider alone had more damning, memorable oppo in it than Bridge's entire book," Miller told National Journal.