The DCCC, led by Chairman Steve Israel, has grown the research department significantly since the unit was brought mostly in house in 2005.
Opposition researchers yearn for the “aha!” moment when they find that golden nugget of information that could break a campaign or doom a candidate.
Sometimes they’re reading decades-old articles in Washington, D.C., searching documents in county clerk’s offices across the country, or, in the case of Jonathan Pullum, digging through jailed former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s (R) archives in Springfield.
“On one of the governor’s schedules for the day, it had a list of earmarks cited that [Rep.] Timothy Johnson [R] was looking for, from the governor,” recalled Pullum, a research analyst for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I felt pretty good because he’s come out against earmarks.”
With a staff of 25, the DCCC boasts the largest in-house research department of the four Congressional campaign committees. The department’s ingenuity will be tested like never before this cycle, as House Democrats seek to net the 25 seats needed to regain the majority.
The DCCC’s team of mostly 20-somethings researches opposition targets for eight weeks at a time, scouring news clips and YouTube videos and traveling across the country to comb through public records, all in hopes of finding a good hit. Discoveries go into hundred-page research books on their targets that are used as bait to recruit candidates, leaked to reporters or cited in campaign advertisements and mail pieces.
It’s all part of the intensifying opposition research wars — in which both parties are regular and active participants. The typically guarded DCCC granted Roll Call unprecedented access to private research meetings and staff interviews on March 29, provided identifiable details about candidates were not revealed.
“They live, breathe and know that candidate from top to bottom,” Research Director Kevin McKeon said of his team. The straightforward 30-year-old has since moved to the committee’s independent expenditure unit, which will be tasked with spending the bulk of the committee’s money on fall TV ads.
The typical starting points for research are easy, but the unraveling of details often is not.
Do the candidates own any small businesses that accepted federal funds they voted against? Start digging through the secretary of state’s archives. Do they have more than a few mortgages on their underwater home? A case for fiscal irresponsibility with the right documentation. Runs a construction business? Often there are lawsuits to be found.
DCCC research books run 250 to 350 pages on average and are updated throughout the cycle. More junior Members can have books as short as 60 to 70 pages, but the books on some veteran lawmakers have more than 1,000 pages.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.