FOIAengine Examines Political Opposition Research
A few weeks ago, Politico’s Florida Playbook ran a story revealing what “hundreds of people, groups, and journalists” in the state were asking for: “texts, emails, calendars, letters, and receipts” to or from Florida’s governor, presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.
In Politico’s telling, many of the requesters were affiliated with the Democratic Party, making demands under the state’s open-records law to get “damning material against political enemies.” And, in DeSantis’ case, Florida’s public records certainly marked the best starting point to look for muck. The list that Politico received of requesters targeting DeSantis in his home state was 222 pages long.
“Unsurprisingly, mostly Democratic-aligned groups asked for dirt on DeSantis and his inner circle,” Politico wrote. “Oddly, no one tied to Trump – or other 2024 candidates – asked for such records, though it’s possible that GOP campaigns used an untraceable proxy to avoid angering a future Republican president.”
Why didn’t the Trump campaign file such requests? Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesperson, bluntly told Politico: “We have information that no opposition researcher can ever find.”
Opposition research – “oppo” in the vernacular of politicians – is a basic building block in every political campaign. Oppo is the ammunition behind every negative campaign ad; every gut punch in a debate. The higher the stakes, the deeper the research. And many more players are in the opposition-research game now, following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
The Court’s 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United opened the door to unlimited election spending by so-called independent political action committees, aka Super PACs. Super PACs spend big on negative ads, and oppo is their ammo. According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks the flow of money in politics, spending in the 2020 presidential and congressional races totaled $14.4 billion, more than double the total cost of the record-breaking 2016 presidential election cycle. That huge influx of money led to more negative campaign advertisements across all media, which in turn juiced the need for more opposition research. (Full disclosure: I am a longtime board member of OpenSecrets).
Not surprisingly, those conducting opposition research turn early and often to the Freedom of Information Act. So we decided to dig into PoliScio Analytics’ competitive-intelligence database FOIAengine, which tracks FOIA requests in as close to real-time as their availability allows, to see what the players are up to.
With so many candidates vying for the Republican nomination, the Republican National Committee is staying on the sidelines, leaving opposition research to the affiliated PACs and super PACs of the various candidates. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of the thousands of FOIA requests from Republican proxies acting on behalf of, or in synch with, the Republican candidates.
With the Democrats, it’s the GOP story in reverse. The Democrats know who their probable standard bearers will be. But, with more than a dozen declared Republican candidates and an even greater number of undeclared long shots, Democratic oppo researchers must throw a dragnet, systematically spreading an array of FOIA requests across a broad swath of agencies and departments.
President Biden’s main super PAC, Future Forward, which spent more than $130 million in 2020, doesn’t show up as a requester in FOIAengine at all. Instead, the Democratic National Committee appears to be taking the oppo-research lead. According to FOIAengine, the DNC has filed more than 300 recent FOIA requests with federal agencies, covering the wide range of candidates who could end up as the eventual presidential or vice presidential nominee on the Republican presidential ticket.
FOIA requests to the federal government can be an important early warning of bad publicity, litigation to come, or uncertainties that must be hedged or gamed out. In this case, the DNC’s FOIA requests appear to reflect a calculus that even if the race for the top of the ticket is settled early, the vice-presidential spot will end up being a wild card. Hence, the DNC must place a lot of early bets on the table.
Over the past year or so, the Democrats’ have filed extensive FOIA requests with various federal agencies seeking detailed information on at least 19 present or former Republican officeholders. The list includes some who have stated flatly that they’re not running for president, but who could end up as a running mate. There are some dark horses: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Pompeo, Ben Carson, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) are among the DNC’s targets. And a few surprises: Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) are on the DNC’s list; Vivek Ramaswamy isn’t – yet.
Following are highlights from the DNC’s opposition-research FOIA requests thus far:
- Glenn Youngkin: The DNC is looking for dirt on the Virginia governor’s long tenure as a senior executive of the Carlyle Group. The Securities and Exchange Commission lists at least 24 recent FOIA requests from the DNC targeting Youngkin and Carlyle, each seeking “all correspondence, including emails, letters, text messages and faxes sent or received by” a raft of present and former SEC officials “that include the keywords Youngkin or Carlyle in the from, to, cc, or bcc fields or in the subject line or body of the correspondence from January 1, 2007 through December 31, 2020,” when Youngkin left Carlyle. In addition, the DNC is seeking “all publicly releasable investigations, audits and other enforcement actions” relating to Carlyle or Youngkin.
- Ben Carson: Obviously, DNC strategists think the former Trump Administration cabinet secretary’s political career might still have some life. Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon, was a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 and later served as Housing and Urban Development secretary. Carson remains one of the country’s most prominent Black conservatives. Before his political career, Carson was involved in two money-losing and litigation-prone start-ups – a cancer immunotherapy venture called Vaccinogen, and a dietary-supplement company called Mannatech, the latter of which used a pyramid-selling model. The SEC received 23 FOIA requests from the DNC for “all email communications, including attachments,” between a slew of present and former SEC officials and “Carson or any representative from Vaccinogen, Inc. or Mannatech, Inc. from January 1, 1997 through December 31, 2015.”
- Elise Stefanik: As chair of the House Republican Conference, the 39-year-old New York congresswoman continues a storied political career that includes running domestic policy in the George W. Bush White House. Stefanik won her first House election in 2014 at age 30, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the time. That means the DNC’s opposition researchers have a lot of ground to cover. The Democrats made 18 FOIA requests seeking correspondence between Stefanik and an array of agencies, including the Departments of State, Treasury, Interior and Education, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Board, the National Institutes of Health, and the SEC. The time frame for the DNC requests goes all the way back to her days as a 21-year-old in the West Wing.
- Other Republicans targeted by the DNC in opposition-research requests include Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), Gov. Ron DeSantis (Fla.), former Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), former Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), former Gov. Doug Ducey (Ariz.), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Pompeo, Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Rep. Dan Crenshaw (Texas), and former Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.).
Next: Thousands of opposition-research requests from Republican-affiliated PACs.
John A. Jenkins, co-creator of FOIAengine, is a Washington journalist and publisher whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and elsewhere. He is a four-time recipient of the American Bar Association’s Gavel Award Certificate of Merit for his legal reporting and analysis. His most recent book is The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist. Jenkins founded Law Street Media in 2013. Prior to that, he was President of CQ Press, the textbook and reference publishing enterprise of Congressional Quarterly. FOIAengine is a product of PoliScio Analytics (PoliScio.com), a new venture specializing in U.S. political and governmental research, co-founded by Jenkins and Washington lawyer Randy Miller. Learn more about FOIAengine here. To review FOIA requests mentioned in this article, subscribe to FOIAengine.
Write to John A. Jenkins at JAJ@PoliScio.com.