ARLINGTON, Va. — In a sterile office building a few miles from the White House, Mitt Romney’s old campaign manager has a new mission: foiling Democratic candidates across the country.
Republicans say that Matt Rhoades’s fledgling political group, America Rising, is attempting to build the party’s most sophisticated, modern, and centralized opposition research effort ever. It is key to the GOP’s hopes of resurrecting itself after the soul-crushing presidential defeat of 2012.
But what’s most notable about American Rising is this: It is the first high-profile political combat organization to rely heavily on a for-profit company, rather than operating as a nonprofit group, exploiting increasingly lax campaign finance laws to maximum advantage.
America Rising’s super PAC raised $475,000 through the end of January, according to federal filings. But its for-profit arm took in far more than that — at least $1.3 million — according to partially disclosed figures from the group that does not include money from individuals and corporations.
Super PACs can raise unlimited dollars but must disclose their contributors and are forbidden from certain types of coordinating with candidates and political parties. Nonprofit political groups do not have to disclose their donors but must spend a majority of their funds on nonpolitical activities.
As a for-profit, America Rising wants the best of all worlds — unlimited funds, undisclosed contributors, and close coordination with campaigns — though campaign finance watchdogs say it is a gray area and that the group is required by law to charge funders fair-market value for the research it provides them.
“They want to get secret money,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates tighter campaign finance laws.
Though the group says Romney is not directly involved in its effort, the super PAC that supported Romney donated $100,000 to America Rising.
And Mitt Romney definitely approves this message. “I am convinced that he will erase the disadvantage GOP candidates have had,” Romney said of Rhoades, in a statement to the Globe. “And if I were a Democrat candidate, I’d sleep less soundly knowing that Matt is watching everything they have and will say and do.”
Opposition research groups, which dig through old files and track candidates in nearly every public appearance, have become essential tools in modern politics. They specialize in keeping opponents on the defensive, tying them in rhetorical knots, and occasionally catching them on video making embarrassing statements.
After months of tuning up, America Rising has now hired more than 55 full- and part-time employees and is set to launch its first full website in the coming days. It will feature, among other attractions, a home page for each targeted candidate, “like a sports team’s home page,” according to Tim Miller, the group’s executive director and a former spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr.
Viewers can also expect a steady diet of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the undeclared presidential candidate and the group’s most popular target. America Rising has been relentless in posting tweets, press releases, and links on the beta version of its website about Clinton, just as Democrats have been going after Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential Republican candidate for president.
Recent Clinton headlines on the site include “Hillary’s Motivation: Revenge,” and “Hillary, Flanked By Security And Assistants, Has Private Shopping Spree At Bergdorf Goodman.” There are taunting pictures and videos of Clinton, and a mock “Hillary’s hit list” with prominent Democrats’ names crossed out in red ink.
Researchers have begun digitizing every detail of Clinton’s life — from Arkansas, to the White House, to the State Department — with the hope that some old ideas will look worse with age and that past controversies will seem fresh to a new generation of voters.
The group is also targeting Democrats in House, Senate, and governors’ races, including New Hampshire’s three Democratic members of Congress and Representative John F. Tierney, the Salem Democrat expected to face a tough reelection. During the State of the Union address, the group posted public video showing Representative Annie Kuster of New Hampshire embracing President Obama, with links to polls showing his low popularity.
America Rising has also broken new ground in annoying elected leaders — regularly sending two video trackers into the halls of Congress, an area once considered off-limits to political trackers. In other words, Rhoades is working directly in the world that helped destroy his candidate in 2012.
It is no accident. Republicans say their effort is a response to liberal groups’ success in painting Romney as a heartless plutocrat. The liberal groups talked early and often about layoffs and big management paydays at Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney once ran. They feasted when video emerged showing Romney disparaging 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders.
Then, when critics complained Obama and his surrogates were going too negative, outside groups such as American Bridge, the Democrats’ main opposition research super PAC, picked up the mantle.
Even as many voters say they loathe negative campaigning, Democrats were lauded among political insiders for updating the dark art of opposition research for the digital age.
The GOP “autopsy” of Romney’s loss demanded that Republicans catch up in time for the 2016 election, by creating a group to record Democrats’ “every movement, utterance, and action.”
Within weeks of the report’s release last March, Rhoades, 39, personally took up the cause. He had experience. He led opposition research for President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, in which he painted John F. Kerry as an elite flip-flopper.
Though the group has big plans, it has yet to make a noticeable impact in elections. It failed to produce victories for Republicans in two early test elections: Senator Edward J. Markey’s Massachusetts special election win in June and Terry McAuliffe’s successful bid for Virginia governor in November.
Though the group specializes in attacks, its leaders sound downright chipper as they compare their work to “show and tell” in kindergarten.
“I definitely think there’s a noble aspect to holding these candidates accountable for their words and actions,” Miller said. “I have no nostalgia for the old days, when a candidate got to go to the farm bureau and say one thing, and go to the chamber and say another thing, and then go to D.C. and say another thing. . . . Now we have the tools to have full information awareness.”
Rhoades declined an interview request, but Miller and Joe Pounder, the 30-year-old president, allowed a reporter to tour the facility.
Inside, 22 young political operatives, armed with MacBook laptops, sit in rooms sparsely decorated with hand-written flow charts, a large photograph of Kerry windsurfing, and a push-pin map marked with targeted races and tracker locations. They log YouTube videos, read Twitter feeds, monitor radio interviews, and collate daily surveillance shot by 30 trackers stationed around the country.
If they are lucky, they will catch a gaffe, but they say they are not counting on that. They are creating thick books that can be searched in an instant to undermine House and Senate candidates’ statements or link them with unpopular policies for years to come.
Democrats say they are not worried about the new group, at least not yet.
Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge, said it is easier for Democrats to find Republicans making embarrassing comments because of their divisive primaries.
“Republicans have their Tea Party problem, so it’s much more likely for a Republican candidate to tack as far right as they can in a primary or on talk radio or Fox News and then tack to the middle over the summer,” he said. “Just the dynamic within the Republican Party makes the tracking over time much more valuable for us.”