The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
As Georgia politicians glad-hand with the masses and deliver high-minded speeches this election season, many quietly have hired opposition research firms whose mission is to hunt for nasty secrets about their opponents – and themselves.
Buried in the latest campaign finance reports — amid payments for pizza, posters and polls — are thousands of dollars candidates have spent for hired researchers to scrutinize court records, news clips and anything else they can get their hands on. Call them the skeleton crew: all they do is look for skeletons.
What’s fair game? Pretty much anything.
Was the person ever arrested? Have they been in a nasty divorce? Did they lie about military service or college degrees? Have they flip-flopped on issues?
Hillary Clinton’s researchers even went back to Barack Obama’s kindergarten scribblings to try to build the case that he was overly ambitious.
No matter how absurd it gets, opposition research — called “oppo” in politico speak — is deadly serious in a world where candidates can go from shoo-in to asterisk as quickly as you can say “swift boat.” And in the age of Twitter, Facebook and online tax liens, a person’s life is as open a book as it has ever been.
The three leading candidates for this fall’s Atlanta’s mayoral race already have hired oppo research firms. And at least two of the candidates in next year’s governor’s race have professional snoops on their payroll.
“You have to do it,” said Dennis W. Johnson, a political management professor at George Washington University. “You have to make sure you are protecting yourself and your candidate.”
That said, Johnson, who used to run his own firm and worked on campaigns in Georgia and across the country, quit the business.
“A lot of it is intellectually dishonest,” he said. “It’s something where you have to hold your nose.”
Jason Stanford, a Texas-based opposition researcher hired by David Poythress, the former Democratic adjutant general running for governor, said on a blog that opposition research is “the spy-craft of political warfare.”
While attacks are daily business in many campaigns, the people who dig up the dirt avoid the limelight. If they do their jobs, you never hear about them.
Laptops at their side, oppo researchers head out into courthouses and libraries to gather the goods.
“We’re basically the Consumer Reports of American politics,” said Stanford, who has worked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga).
Their work can turn into campaign gold. Dan McLagan, spokesman for Secretary of State Karen Handel’s campaign for governor, was spokesman for Sonny Perdue’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002. In the GOP primary, Perdue’s researchers gathered records showing state Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko, his opponent, had been flying on state aicraft to campaign stops. At the right time, McLagan said, the Perdue campaign nailed Schrenko for using taxpayer funds.
UGA political science professor M.V. “Trey” Hood III said it’s clear: If you don’t do opposition research, “you are not going to win.”
Some firms offer sleek brochures and corporate Web sites that speak euphemistically about their research. Others are blunt. Stanford, who Poythress paid $5,000 in May, says on his Web site: “We serve Republicans. Would you like them skewered, roasted or deep fried?”
So far in the Atlanta race, state Sen. Kasim Reed has spent the most on oppo: More than $14,000 to VR Research of Oakland, Calif.
Campaign manager Tharon Johnson said Reed hired the firm mostly to do “internal research on Kasim Reed.”
“Any leading candidate for mayor can expect to be the target of attack,” he said.
City Council member Mary Norwood’s mayoral campaign spent more than $4,000 to hire Chicago firm 3rd Coast Research. Paul Zucca, co-chair of Norwood’s campaign, also said they hired 3rd Coast primarily to check out their own candidate.
City Council President Lisa Borders’s spokeswoman Liz Flowers said the campaign has hired someone and the cost will show up on the next filing. Flowers would not name the company.
“Opposition research is now a part of any campaign at this level or above,” she said.
As the governor’s race heats up with a crowded field for both parties, expect oppo research to be a standard expense for candidates.
Wendy Davis, Poythress’ campaign manager, said it is an act of self-preservation.
“It’s not peeking in windows or any of that,” Davis said. “It’s all about the public record and making sure we know the full landscape.”
Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination spent $2,500 to hire Investigative Consultants International, an Alpharetta private detective agency that does background checks, surveillance and even aerial surveillance. Oxendine campaign manager Tim Echols said the campaign hired the agency solely to background Oxendine.
A few candidates said they plan to hire research firms, but haven’t yet. Others said they will stick to what they consider to be the high road.
Harris Blackwood, spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal’s campaign for governor, said the Deal camp has no plans to hire opposition researchers or private investigators. “Some people want to act like adults,” Blackwood said.
The gubernatorial campaigns of Handel and state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said they haven’t hired opposition researchers. In the Atlanta race, candidate Jess Spikes’ campaign doesn’t plan to hire anyone to snoop.
Sean Richey, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said campaigns that don’t hire oppo researchers do so at their own peril. Even so, Richey questioned what the practice has done to the democratic process.
With oppo researchers hoarding mudballs to chuck at candidates, many good people with mistakes in their past, even minor ones, may choose not to enter politics.
“It’s good for the candidates,” he said. “But it’s bad for democracy.”