Politics

What Is “Dirt” in 2019?

How the jobs of opposition researchers have changed in the era of Northam, Kavanaugh, and Trump.

Virginia first lady Pam Northam and Gov. Ralph Northam hold hands as they leave the funeral for Virginia State Trooper Lucas B. Dowell on Feb. 9 in Chilhowie, Virginia.
Virginia first lady Pam Northam and Gov. Ralph Northam leave the funeral for Virginia State Trooper Lucas B. Dowell on Feb. 9 in Chilhowie, Virginia.
Steve Helber - Pool/Getty Images

Last fall, a tipster sent the progressive opposition research firm American Bridge an old video clip of Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette. The 39-second scene opens with a woman off-screen asking a seated Schuette to move closer to a lamp to his right, as they prepare to tape a television interview. “I would be happy to move closer to the lamp,” Schuette tells her, making a kind of heavy eye contact recognizable to any woman. “I will do anything you want. Some things I may not let you run the camera on.” That was pretty much it. He doesn’t touch her, or explicitly proposition her. He’s simply and indisputably creepy.

Schuette’s subtle grossness might not have counted as a bona fide scandal a few years ago. But we’re obviously now in an era in which sexual harassment stories that might have been laughed off just a few years ago are more often taken seriously by both the media and the public. American Bridge decided to release the video via tweet, calling it “interesting.” That was all it took to take off. By the next day, Schuette was forced to address the incident in a debate, where he awkwardly explained he was “apparently trying to be funny.” The clip was eventually featured on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver—“I don’t know how she got through the interview without punching him in the dick”—and in an attack ad released by American Bridge a week before the election. Schuette lost the race to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer by more than 400,000 votes.

These are interesting times to be an opposition researcher. The job used to be pretty self-explanatory: Hurt a rival candidate by digging up evidence of past criminal behavior, ties to political extremists, or sexual infelicities. Now, the stuff of scandal is getting scrambled. “What meets the bar for opposition research—it’s not higher, it’s just different,” said Bradley Beychok, American Bridge’s co-founder and president. Some of the old bombshells no longer work, while formerly minor bits of gossip are now potential grenades.

We have a president who seems impervious to the longtime standbys of political embarrassment, including revelations of financial misdeeds and sexual impropriety. Trump’s Teflon-like reputation has caused some to ask whether opposition research still matters at all: If a man can be elected president just weeks after a tape emerges of him bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” then why bother digging up anything?

Trump is a singular figure whose awfulness is baked into his appeal to much of his base. Still, it’s true that cultural and legislative shifts have robbed many old-fashioned taboos of their shock value.

When presidential candidate Bill Clinton admitted in 1992 he had experimented with marijuana as a young man, it became a defining moment of that election cycle. Today, stories about dabbling in drug use are now offered up as charming personal anecdotes. When a radio host asked Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris last week* if she had ever smoked pot, she happily said she had—“and I inhaled.” The only whiff of “scandal” that came out of her confession was that Harris claimed she listened to Tupac while she smoked in college, when the rapper’s first album didn’t come out until years after she graduated.

But in some categories of behavior, the standards have clearly grown stricter. Misbehavior brushed off as roguish a few decades ago can torpedo a candidate’s career in the post-#MeToo era. Take Sen. Al Franken’s resignation under duress in 2017 after multiple women accused him of groping them as they posed for photographs. Tim Miller, founder of the conservative opposition research group America Rising, said that many rumors about longtime Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy and Christopher Dodd would now be campaign-killers. “If you’re an opposition researcher now, considering changing mores, you’re going to say, ‘Let’s go back and look at this candidate 10 or 20 years ago and see how they were talking about women.’ ” (Google “waitress sandwich” if you have the stomach for it, or revisit Carrie Fisher’s account of the time Kennedy asked her if she would have sex with Dodd.)

Stories about financial corruption are also hot right now, Beychok said, because they resonate with the larger political narrative of the Trump era. “You have to look at what the weather’s like,” he said. “Wasteful spending, corruption, graft, greed—voters are interested in them.”

It’s not just the substance of opposition research that is changing. The source material has changed, too. Yearbooks have long been a staple of well-funded opposition campaigns, but Miller said yearbook-sourced scoops have become more appealing to reporters after the Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Brett Kavanaugh stories. “If someone found a minorly offensive comment in a yearbook, that would be bigger news now,” he said. “Reporters are interested in trends.” Social media is another clear font of source material. Facebook groups of alumni make it easier to contact old classmates. Beychok’s firm has internal algorithms to trawl targets’ past activities on social media, digging up problematic old faves and retweets.

Tim Miller argues that there’s a growing party divide when it comes to the stuff of scandal. Take the case of Northam, who is facing intense pressure from his own party to resign over a photograph on his medical school yearbook page depicting a man in blackface and another in a KKK robe; in a press conference denying he appeared in the photo, Northam said he had once applied shoe polish to his face to dress as Michael Jackson for a dance competition. The episode would have been plenty shocking 10 or 20 years ago. But today, Miller believes, “Democrats have put such an emphasis on racial justice, on leveling the playing field, on discrimination against women and gays [that] having a white man putting on blackface to dress like Michael Jackson, it’s particularly damaging within his party, given where the party is trying to go.” And opposition researchers try to use that to their advantage.

In this new landscape, a Democratic presidential candidate like Joe Biden could be newly vulnerable, Miller said. The left now views his handling of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings as a disaster, for example. He also has a reputation for the kind of interpersonal ickiness that has inspired headlines like “9 Times Joe Biden Creepily Whispered in Women’s Ears.” “Biden right now is dealing with oppo related to things that were in the mainstream of the Democratic Party 20 years ago,” Miller said. Biden, of course, is almost certainly aware of his own potential issues on this front. The shifting contours of what counts as “dirt” means candidates have to interrogate their own pasts for new kinds of potential pitfalls. “Self-research has been around a long time,” Beychok said. “But we’ve seen, in the last two and a half years, a volcano erupt of what you have to think about in terms of what happened in the past.”

Correction, Feb. 19, 2019: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misstated when Kamala Harris made her comments about marijuana. It was last week (Feb. 11), not this week.