WASHINGTON -- Everywhere Florida Gov. Rick Scott goes, they go.
With high-definition Canon video cameras, the political operatives have traveled tens of thousands of miles in the past year, recording every Scott speech, event and interaction with reporters, feeding it to The Vault, a colossal database housed in an office building in Washington.
The two full-time staffers for American Bridge don’t ever confront Scott, but they have complicated life for the Republican seeking re-election in November, amplifying his propensity to evade questions, generating news coverage with their video clips and backing up state Democrats who will be outspent by Scott and the GOP.
“Tracking” is not a new phenomenon in politics yet the liberal American Bridge is injecting it with steroids — 42 staffers in 38 states have traveled more than 487,000 miles this election cycle — and carving a new trail in opposition research.
The effort represents another turn in the fast-moving trend of outside groups and money in elections.
“Florida is a place where we like to work,” American Bridge president Brad Woodhouse, a blunt-talking operative with glasses and close-cropped graying hair, said from his Washington office. “Rick Scott’s been the gift that keeps on giving.”
On the floor below him, a vast war room is filled on a recent afternoon with young staffers at computers, coffee and lunch by their mouse pads. Some are combing through news articles — the goal is to read everything written about a candidate or elected official — and pulling out nuggets that may be useful later.
Others monitor social media and cable TV news or look through the fruits of public records requests, of which American Bridge has made more than 1,000 across the country in the past year. Still others collect and catalog trackers’ footage and clips from TV and radio.
American Bridge’s video archive has 54,000 clips so far; more than 2,200 of those are related to Scott.
An online calendar contains events for dozens of political targets so daily decisions can be made to dispatch trackers, usually young people getting a start in politics. They are instructed not to ask questions or to provoke, unlike the in-your-face brand of tracking waged in some political circles. The trackers must contend with opponents who try to block their view, mess up their audio or have them tossed out of events.
But The Vault keeps getting bigger.
“Our biggest value is as a long-term curator of both research and tracking footage,” said Woodhouse, who also has worked for the Democratic National Committee and as a campaign strategist for President Barack Obama. (His brother Dallas is a conservative operative.)
“Hopefully we’ll be around 10 years from now,” he said. “No one will have what we have.”
The group is already compiling research on potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been under American Bridge scrutiny since he emerged as a possible running mate to Mitt Romney. In 2012, the group posted a 555-page research book on Rubio.
It was mostly a review of his votes as a member of the Florida House and two years in Washington. “That was scratching the surface,” said Gwen Rocco, communications director, implying the group has added muscle to its research.
American Bridge tracks Rubio in Florida, and when he went to New Hampshire last month to give a speech before a Republican group, a tracker followed, only to be turned away.
The results of such intensive labor can be stunning.
It was an American Bridge tracker who first noticed a local TV report in which Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin talked about “legitimate rape.” Blowing up into a national political story, it effectively ended Akin’s 2012 campaign and thwarted Republican attempts to take control of the Senate.
When 28,000 pages of documents were released showing communication between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and his state staff, reporters dove in. So did American Bridge, using its phalanx of researchers to quickly sift through them, highlighting juicy details in missives to reporters within a matter of hours.
Early this year, it reached into its vaults to catch Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner in a major flip-flop over raising the minimum wage.
“Research is not relevant until it is,” said Rocco, repeating the mantra that guides her line of work.
Formed in 2010
American Bridge 21st Century, the group’s formal name, was formed in 2010 by David Brock, a self-styled “right-wing hit man” who became a Democrat and started the watchdog group Media Matters. American Bridge is a Super PAC that can accept unlimited donations and has received funding from billionaire George Soros, Anne Earhart (connected to the Getty Oil fortune), unions and other sources. The group also has a nonprofit arm that does not disclose its donors.
Where traditional Super PACs and outside groups focus on raising vast sums to create attack ads, American Bridge is focusing on information gathering.
In the 2014 cycle, it plans to spend up to $18 million, significant but small compared with some Republican-aligned Super PACs. The Bridge research is then fed to Democratic Super PACs, such as House Majority, and state parties.
“In these days of big outside spending by the Republicans, Democrats have to work together,” said Joshua Karp, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt lucky to lean on American Bridge.”
The research is also distributed to reporters, and often ends up published or on TV, the kind of exposure that would be very costly if done in a political ad.
Case in point: In April, Scott was under fire for a misleading ad he ran about the loss of insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act. At a news event reporters repeatedly questioned Scott, who maintained the ad was accurate. “But it’s not, governor,” Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo said.
American Bridge video of the exchange was quickly disseminated and wound up on MSNBC and the websites of several national news outlets.
“Watch Rick Scott pretend he hasn’t been busted for misleading Obamacare ads,” read a headline on the Huffington Post site.
American Bridge also has used its video library to paint a picture of Scott as someone who will not answer questions, stringing together clips in which he dodges questions or acts as if they were not asked. Florida Democrats have hit Scott in the same way.
“What we’ve chronicled is someone who really, I think, is not prepared to do this work,” Woodhouse said. “If you get a true gaffe or a moment, that’s gravy. But it’s the identifying a profile of someone over time.”
Scott’s campaign dismissed American Bridge as a “radical left-wing attack machine from D.C.” that was called in to hide probable Democratic nominee Charlie Crist’s record as a former governor.
American Bridge is not coordinating with the Crist campaign, but Crist benefits anyway with Florida Democrats able to rely on the group’s research.
When Scott gave his annual State of the State speech in March, Bridge fed the Democrats video, graphics and research to document how, Karp said, “Scott has hurt opportunity for middle-class Floridians.”
American Bridge’s success has drawn a GOP rival, America Rising, started by a group of operatives, including Joe Pounder, who worked on Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign. It is focused mainly on House and Senate races but has a staff of 60 so far, including 20 trackers.
Executive director Tim Miller said he hasn’t followed rival American Bridge’s work in Florida closely enough to comment. But he added in an email, “Obviously we have a high regard for the value of opposition research and tracking in political campaigns!”
Last month, the group captured footage off C-SPAN that appeared to show U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, picking his ear and then putting the finger in his mouth. The video — and Garcia’s embarrassment — went viral. It has been viewed 2.5 million times.