Last week, Rep. Bruce Braley was still doing damage control.
More than a week after a video exploded across the Internet showing him at a private fundraiser, dismissing Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa,” Braley, a lawyer by trade, rattled off his rural bona fides to reporters.
“I cleaned out grain boxcars in elementary school, baled hay, detasseled corn, chopped thistles, and shelled corn in junior high,” said Braley, whose family has a long history in farming. “I drove a grain truck, delivered seed and feed, cleaned out grain bins, and dried corn after playing in football games on Friday nights in high school.”
The pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC is now on the air in Iowa with a new ad, featuring farmers coming to Braley's defense. "People can say what they like,” one man said in the ad, as reported by a local newspaper. “But we know Bruce."
Braley, a Democrat, has been favored to win Iowa’s open Senate seat this year. Public polling suggests he still is — but there is now a glaring chink in his armor, and renewed interest among national Republicans in the race.
“That is going to be a video that is relevant and dogs Bruce Braley until Election Day,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The group behind the video that reignited Republicans’ hopes of winning in Iowa is a fledgling opposition-research and tracking group, America Rising, established last year to fill a gaping hole in Republican election strategy on the national level.
In 2012, an opposition-research machine helped propel Democrats to maintain control of the Senate — and Republicans were hard-pressed to defend against it. A Democratic super PAC, American Bridge, was able to specialize and hone in on one goal: To dig up dirt on Republican candidates and steer media coverage with it. That was a task that, in previous elections, had been left to party committees; for Republicans, it still was. But Democrats were working on a new, higher plane.
With millions of dollars and dozens of full-time employees, American Bridge was well-positioned to leap into action when, for example, Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, said during a local news interview that pregnancy could not result from “legitimate rape.”
American Bridge swiftly posted the video to YouTube and pushed it to Missouri and national media until the story caught fire. The story shifted the entire Senate race, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., ultimately coasted to re-election.
Republicans recognized their disadvantage.
“American Bridge’s research department was three times the size of the NRSC’s,” recalled one former committee aide. “We just couldn’t compete.”
Republicans hope that is no longer the case.
In this midterm election cycle, the GOP is turning to America Rising for video and research on opposition candidates to damage their bids or even derail them entirely.
The group, founded by former Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades, is on one side a for-profit LLC, helmed by former Republican National Committee research director Joe Pounder, and on the other a super PAC, led by former RNC spokesperson Tim Miller.
And, although they have had to play catch-up to American Bridge, America Rising has made strides that even Democrats acknowledge.
“They’re well-positioned to take advantage of potential gaffes on the Democratic side,” said one Democratic strategist.
But the strategist cautioned: “I think American Bridge is even more well-positioned to take advantage of gaffes on the Republican side, because they’re a bigger and better organization.”
Indeed, American Bridge is much larger than America Rising and will likely have twice as many staff in this election cycle.
But America Rising has ascended quickly in part because it has concentrated support from the national Republican establishment, counting among its clients Republican committees, such as the NRSC, campaigns and other pro-GOP groups. It has in short order targeted high-profile Democrats, including Hillary Clinton — but to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of donors and the public at large, the group needed a big win, as with the Braley video.
“The Braley thing had such a big impact in Iowa and was covered so dramatically by mainstream media outlets that I definitely feel it’s put us on the map for people who have not been following the minutiae,” Miller told the Washington Examiner.
A fortunate mix of political events helped elevate the video. Republicans recently fielded competitive Senate candidates in Colorado and New Hampshire, where Democrats had been thought to have a prohibitive advantage, as in Iowa. The video lent further weight to the notion that the GOP was expanding its Senate battleground map.
America Rising is mum on how it came by the Braley video, be it through an outside source or one of its own researchers or trackers — a network of full-time and part-time employees at the heart of what the organization is trying to build.
The group now numbers more than 50 full-time staff across 17 states, including trackers, in addition to another dozen or so part-time trackers, who tail candidates to fundraisers and other events, collecting video. The targeted candidates aren’t limited to those in top-tier races, either; they also include Democrats who could one day run for higher office.
“We want the trackers in these states to be covering as many Democrats as possible to have more and more video of these folks speaking on the record,” Miller said.
America Rising is building a video archive that will be searchable by transcript — which can be useful for finding an instance of a candidate using a damaging line, such as the widely echoed Obamacare promise, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”
And the group will continue to try to match the better-established tracking and research efforts of Democrats — much of which is time-consuming, resource-draining, and rote.
“There’s a lot of grind,” Miller said. “But, occasionally, you strike gold.”