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An Inside Look at the DCCC Research Department

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
The DCCC, led by Chairman Steve Israel, has grown the research department significantly since the unit was brought mostly in house in 2005.

Diana Asti, a newly promoted research analyst, finished a 204-page book on a target following seven days on the ground, 30 Freedom of Information requests and finding every word from the candidate ever on record. That morning in the DCCC’s second-floor conference room, Asti finally had the opportunity to reveal one of her biggest discoveries about her target: his secret first marriage.

“My head just went in all different directions, like maybe they’ve divorced and he hasn’t paid alimony, or maybe he has a child and he hasn’t paid child support,” exclaimed the 23-year-old Asti afterward in an interview. “I went into a million different directions of what this could possibly be. It was a very exciting moment.”

The DCCC, now led by Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), has grown the department significantly since then-Chairman Rahm Emanuel brought the unit mostly in house in 2005. By 2008, the research team boasted 14 staffers.

Over the past few cycles, the department’s output increased significantly. In 2008 it prepared 56 books, and this cycle it anticipates compiling as many as 78 in-house research books.

Researchers also work on smaller, 48-hour projects, known as “backgrounders,” that often serve as primers for an upcoming book. The DCCC has put together 209 backgrounders on opponents this cycle.

By comparison, just a few blocks away from the DCCC, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s 12-person research department anticipates completing 50 to 60 books this cycle.

The DCCC’s research sources vary, but all of the information is found via public documents: property assessments, divorce decrees, court records and roll-call votes. Staffers put in dozens of FOIA requests for each candidate, known internally as a “FOIA bomb.”

Later in the project, research staffers travel to the candidates’ home base. On-the-ground research requires a little more finesse, and the most seasoned researchers have their tricks.

McKeon likes to bring doughnuts on the second day to charm the archives secretary. One of his deputies gets a haircut on every trip, because he believes the town barber usually knows everything.

There are some unintended consequences for the young biographers.

“My research humanizes them to me,” said Alex Ivey, a 22-year-old DCCC research analyst. “You spend two months in this guy’s mind, or this woman’s mind, as it were. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or call it what you want, but either way, I don’t walk away from at least any of the research books I’ve done thinking they’re a bad person.”

In a cross between a thesis defense and “TMZ” episode, McKeon grilled staffers during “pop quiz time” at the DCCC’s research annex. He prodded one about a House district she didn’t know, much to her embarrassment. “It’s OK, you’re new,” McKeon quipped. “So, fun fact and announcement. We now care about [this district]. So can we start a clip book?”

The windowless conference room has a trophy wall of multicolored, highlighted news clips, organized by region, of successfully planted research in local and national publications. Down the hall, McKeon stores the final books haphazardly on a shelf in one of his two offices.

Not every challenger receives the DCCC research treatment. Departments jointly decide which races merit the committee’s time, attention and resources.

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