Republicans have an unflagging ability to lose elections by saying outrageous crap, but someone has to record it all—and put it on blast. That someone is the Democratic opposition research shop American Bridge, which is why we’re talking to the organization’s president, Pat Dennis, on this week’s episode of “The Downballot.” Dennis tells us how the not-so-dark art of “oppo” works, explaining how it’s been refined over the years to better allow Democrats to target Republicans running far down the ballot. He also shares the do’s and don’ts of tracking candidates and how his shop most effectively weaponizes the massive storehouses of video and research it puts together.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also kick off the third season of “The Downballot” with a recap of the normally snoozy but surprisingly newsy holiday break, starting with Lauren Boebert’s naked attempt to stay in power by flitting off to a new district on the far side of the state. Then there’s a huge redistricting win for the good guys in Wisconsin, but a tough loss in Georgia—though a silver lining for Democrat Lucy McBath. Finally, we catch up on the special election to replace George Santos and the fumbling efforts of a Kevin McCarthy ally to get on the ballot in the race to succeed the ex-speaker.
Subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. New episodes every Thursday morning!
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to City Council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: It’s 2024, which means it’s a big election year, and we’re very excited to be kicking off season three of “The Downballot.”
Nir: I can’t believe it’s already season three. I hope all of our listeners had fantastic holidays. Coming up on our weekly hits, we are going to be discussing Lauren Boebert’s attempt at district shopping to prolong her political career, a redistricting win for the good guys in Wisconsin, but a loss for the good guys in Georgia. Then there is the special election out on Long Island in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. And finally, Kevin McCarthy, who just resigned from Congress on the last day of 2023, and his disastrous efforts to anoint a successor who is stumbling his way onto the ballot.
Then coming up after our break, we are joined by Pat Dennis, the president of American Bridge, a major Democratic-aligned super PAC that is also the number one shop for opposition research. It is a fascinating topic and a fascinating interview. We have a terrific show coming up, so let’s get rolling. Beard, we might’ve been on break, but I feel like there was a ton of down-ballot election news that broke during the final tail end of the year.
Beard: Yeah. I feel like one of the traditional rules of election work is that everybody takes off the week between Christmas and New Year, so you can have a break and then a bunch of announcements come the first or second week of January when people start getting back from the holidays, come back to DC. And I think there’s a good chance we still might see that upcoming. But that did not stop people from making news in late December.
Nir: All the rules changed in the Trump era.
Beard: Yeah. Of course. And we’re going to start in Colorado where one of the most notorious Representatives made some news. That’s of course Lauren Boebert, who has been in the news many times for various different reasons. She announced that she’s switching from her western Colorado-based 3rd District all the way to the other side of the state, to the open eastern Colorado-based 4th District that is significantly redder. Now, the district that she ran in previously was a Trump +8 district; most people who are Republicans can hold Trump plus eight districts pretty easily, but not Lauren Boebert. She was having some trouble. She, of course, had one of the closest races of the year in 2022, defeating Democrat Adam Frisch by less than 600 votes.
So she thought, let’s not risk that again. Let’s not risk losing to a Democrat and handing the seat over to the Democrats. So she’s moving all the way across the state to a much redder Trump +19 district that is not really competitive for Democrats at all. So if she’s the Republican nominee, which is by no means guaranteed, she should have a comfortable reelection. But of course, other folks were already running for that seat. It’s an open seat. Ken Buck, of course, announced that he wouldn’t be running for reelection, so other ambitious Republicans have already started campaigns. And I don’t think they’re too happy about somebody from the other side of the state diving into their district.
Nir: Oh, man, they were instantly angry and furious and just ragging on her saying that she doesn’t know anything about western Colorado, and that’s definitely true. It’s a really stark situation. If you look at a map of Colorado’s congressional districts, the 3rd District, her old district, covers the entire western portion of the state. It’s a big sprawling rural district. And the 4th District covers the entire eastern part of the state, and it’s a big sprawling rural district. They have no overlap. It’s so obvious that the only thing Boebert is doing here is district shopping. It’s also really rare to see. We do sometimes see incumbents move districts because of redistricting. But here there’s no redistricting involved at all. The last time I could think of something like this happening was all the way back in 2010. So this is a real rarity. So it’s no surprise that she’s being greeted with a lot of hostility.
Beard: Yeah. And it’s pure shameless wanting to stay in Congress. That is her only goal. She doesn’t want to risk losing. She thinks she has a better chance in this district all the way across the state. So she’s going to make the jump. It doesn’t surprise me of course that someone like Lauren Boebert would do this. But it will be interesting to see if she’s successful. Obviously, she’s certainly a name. People know who she is. I think a lot of Republican primary voters probably like her. So I think there’s a reasonable chance that she can pull this off, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee by any means.
Nir: Absolutely not. She does only need a plurality in the primary in order to win the nomination. There are no runoffs here. But she also has to make the ballot first. And making the ballot in Colorado can be surprisingly tricky. Candidates have often screwed up, and there are multiple ways to screw up depending on whether you’re trying to gather signatures or whether you’re trying to get enough support at your party convention. And if there’s anyone capable of messing this up, I think that Lauren Boebert, I would put her name on that list.
She’s clearly one of those people who serves in Congress simply to get media attention. That’s why she wants to stay in Congress. And that kind of person, not usually a strong campaigner, not usually good about, or even cares about, the nuts and bolts of day-to-day campaigning. So I would not be surprised if she didn’t make the ballot. I could definitely bet that if she goes the signature route, her opponents will be scrutinizing them very carefully to see it. They can get her thrown off.
Beard: Yeah. Absolutely. And Boebert not making the ballot would just be the chef’s kiss to the end of the story.
Nir: Oh, God. Oh, man. Yeah. All right. I’m going to light a candle and pray to Molech for that one.
Beard: Yeah. There’s also one other important thing to note. I think a lot of folks wrote off CO-03 after Boebert jumped. They thought that her poor showings were obviously a big reason why that district was competitive. But we’ve already seen another crazy person jump in, former state Representative Ron Hanks, who’s an election denier. He tried to run for U.S. Senate last year as a super Trumpy guy. He’s launched a bid to run in that district just two days after Boebert left. So he’s the type of person who could make CO-03 competitive despite her leaving. So don’t write that district off just yet.
Nir: Yeah. In fact, Hanks was such a terrible candidate that in 2022, Democrats actually tried to boost him in the GOP Senate primary for Michael Bennett’s reelection campaign, and it didn’t work out. I mean, Hanks had no money. He wound up losing the GOP primary to a much better-funded candidate by about a 54-46 margin. So it was pretty close. Now that better-funded candidate, Joe O’Dea, still got his ass kicked by Michael Bennet, so it ultimately didn’t matter in the slightest.
But if you are on that special list of candidates, Democrats are willing to spend money on to boost at a GOP primary. You’ve got to suck real hard. So yeah, if Ron Hanks is the GOP nominee here, then I think Adam Frisch, who is one of the best-funded house challengers anywhere in the nation, maybe the best, I think that Frisch would still have a real chance to flip that district.
And one other thing I should add, Beard, is that Democrats did really well in Colorado at all levels of the ballot in 2022. And that included strong performances at the top of the ticket in the 3rd District. If I’m not mistaken, Jared Polis, the Democratic governor who won reelection actually narrowly carried the 3rd District. So yeah, this could be a debacle for the GOP anyway. And also let’s not lose sight of the possibility that, hey, maybe Donald Trump won’t be on the ballot in Colorado next year.
Beard: Who knows what might happen on that front or if that might affect things? But yes, I think CO-03 has some growing Democratic areas, particularly around ski resorts and things like that. So I think there is a real chance here and we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the district as the campaign continues.
Nir: So we also got a ton of redistricting news over the holiday season. And the big one that, man, you have to be excited about this if you’re a progressive, is that our new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that we just won last year struck down the state’s legislative maps, which were drawn by Republicans as extreme gerrymanders, on some very simple grounds. They violated the state constitution because many of the districts were not contiguous. And the state constitution is really clear: districts have to be contiguous. So that means we are going to have new fair maps in 2024, and that means Democrats will have a fantastic shot at finally retaking at least one chamber of the legislature in the perennial swing state, Wisconsin.
Beard: Yeah. This is definitely a ruling that we thought there was a very good chance it would be coming. I am not surprised by it, but I am very excited by it. And knowing that there’s now an even better chance that we’re going to be seeing some fair districts for candidates to run in Wisconsin is just great news.
Nir: It really is. And this case is interesting though in its own right because of the grounds on which the court ruled. If you look at a map of Wisconsin’s legislative districts, it’s almost like a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s like a paint splatter. And Republicans had these really weird arguments saying, “Well, no, these districts actually are contiguous because many municipalities of Wisconsin are themselves not contiguous. But these districts represent municipal borders, so therefore they’re somehow contiguous.” And the majority said, “That is not what contiguity means. Contiguous means contiguous. You have to be able to traverse a district from one end to the other without leaving it.” And the conservative minority completely flipped out.
But what’s also funny about this is Republicans are really befuddled. They just seem to have no ability and no understanding of what life is like when they don’t exercise total control over the state, particularly the state Supreme Court. The Republican Speaker of the State Assembly, Robin Vos — he’s the guy who had been making all those impeachment threats against Janet Protasiewicz, that he’s since backed down from. So he said after the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down this ruling that Republicans might appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They might as well appeal to the United Nations.
I mean, look, there’s always some way that SCOTUS could intervene and try to undo this ruling. But the liberals on the court knew exactly what they were doing. They ruled on really narrow grounds. It would be wild if SCOTUS said that a state supreme court cannot interpret the state constitution in regard to state elections. I mean, they could do it. I’m sure Alito is trying to fantasize some way to come up with here, but it would be just beyond nonsense. I think that there is no chance in any sane world of this ruling getting overturned on some further appeal.
Beard: Yeah. I think clearly the liberals on the court there knew that they didn’t want to go anywhere where the Supreme Court could intervene, so they made a ruling that is very, very safe if you’re knowledgeable about the law at all. It’s a very safe ruling that you would not expect any federal court to get involved in in any way.
What I can’t get over, as you mentioned, is these conservative justices are just so mad that they’re in the minority. And I know that they were in the majority for a long time and they got used to it and they were very comfortable, but it happens. People lose elections and then you’re in the minority and you have to get over it. And these justices just feel like they are having this great wrong done to them by the people of Wisconsin by electing Janet Protasiewicz. And it’s just so funny.
Nir: Well, it’s also scary because I think they really don’t accept as legitimate elections that Republicans or conservatives don’t win. Those are the only races they view as legitimate, but the fact of the matter is the rest of the world does. And the upshot here is that we’re going to have new maps for 2024. Now, given the short timeframe, the Supreme Court ordered a two-track process. It said to the legislature, “You guys should pass new maps that are compliant with the state constitution.” But they also know that Republicans who run the legislature and Democratic Governor Tony Evers, are never going to come to any kind of agreement. So that means a deadlock. That means no new legal maps passed. So at the exact same time, they are also accepting submissions from parties and friends of the court that comply with their ruling. February 1 is the key date to look for.
The court also appointed some experts to help it with the process. Interestingly, they did not direct the experts to draw their own maps. What they said is the experts should review all the submissions from the parties and amicus briefs to see if any of them comply with the court’s directives on what the next map should look like. Only if none of those submissions pass muster can these experts draw their own map. And the other part of this that is I think the most important to emphasize, the court did not strike down these maps as partisan gerrymanders, but what they did say is that any replacement maps must be politically neutral, that they can’t favor one party over another. So given how swingy Wisconsin is, that means that instead of Republican super majorities, we should have maps that are capable of giving a majority to either party.
Beard: And despite the Republicans’ claims, this is not difficult to do. What they like to say particularly about states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, is that there’s this natural geographic thing that favors Republicans, which is not really true at all. You can easily draw these maps to still look nice as they always care about and be very normal maps and just be like, “Oh, hey, and we’re also going to draw them in a way that is not unfair.” So it’s something that we’ll definitely see plenty of submissions be able to do that, and they’ll have plenty of maps to pick from.
Nir: I can’t stand it when people fetishize “nice-looking” maps, quote-unquote, but if we want to talk about ugly maps, the existing GOP maps, I know I compared it to a Jackson Pollock, but I feel really, really bad. My apologies.
Beard: Not a good way.
Nir: My apologies to Jackson Pollock for that one. But there’s one other detail here that I should note. Every two years, the entire state Assembly is up for election, but only half of the state Senate is up for election. And plaintiffs had asked that the court order new elections for the entire Senate to be held in 2024 this November. This was the one plaintiff’s request that the court didn’t grant. So only half of the Senate is going to be up this November.
That means that half of all senators will still have been elected on gerrymandered maps, which means that Democrats probably can’t retake a majority in the Senate until 2026 when the second half of the Senate finally comes up for election under the new non-gerrymandered maps. But we’ve got to work our asses off to flip as many Senate seats as we can in November. And of course, we got a legit shot at flipping the Assembly.
Beard: Yeah, and due to the fact, obviously, that Evers is governor until 2026, that ensures that as long as there are fair maps, there are not going to be supermajorities anymore. So Republicans won’t have unified control of Wisconsin for the two years after the 2024 elections. So we should really view this as a two-cycle process. Of course, if we can take the Assembly in 2024, great, but what would be the best is we make sure we’re making good progress in both chambers so we can target 2026 the way that Democrats did in Michigan and Minnesota. And of course, we saw that after that happened in 2022, a lot of great progressive policies passed.
Nir: So now we did have another redistricting ruling that was actually really disappointing, and this one was out of Georgia where a few months back, a federal judge struck down the state’s congressional and legislative maps for both chambers and ordered the state to create new maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act by creating additional districts where Black voters could elect their preferred candidates. Well, Republicans did go ahead and pass new maps, but they still remain very strong Republican gerrymanders and the judge upheld these maps. These new maps almost certainly ensure that Democrats will remain in the minority in the legislature, and also that Republicans will keep their 9-5 advantage in the State’s congressional delegation, even though this is a state that Biden won and has two Democratic US senators. Now, Republicans were able to do this because at the same time that they were creating new Black districts, they also dismantled diverse districts that had elected Democrats.
And the most notable of these was the safely blue 7th congressional district in the northeastern Atlanta suburbs. In fact, this was one of the most diverse districts in the nation. Really, really interesting. The voting age population of the district that they dismantled is 33% White, 30% Black, 21% Latino, and 16% Asian American: really remarkable part of the country. And last year, it elected a Black Democrat, Lucy McBath, but Republicans shredded that district and made it safely red, while at the same time drawing a new safely blue district, the sixth district in the Western Atlanta suburbs that’s now majority black. What’s so weird about the outcome is that this judge had warned Republicans not to do this — at least it seemed like he had. In his prior ruling that struck down the previous map for failing to comply with the VRA, he said that lawmakers could not draw a compliant map by creating new black districts but “eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere.”
And the plaintiffs here concluded, as did we, that minority opportunity districts, referred to districts like the one that had elected McBath, which were capable of electing Black voters’ candidate of choice even without a Black majority. But in his new ruling, the one that came out over the holidays, Judge Steve Jones said, “No, I was only talking about Black voters, not coalition districts.” This doesn’t really make sense. You don’t use the phrase minority opportunity districts if you just mean Black preference districts. It almost feels like a clerk stuck that line in and maybe it should have come out because Jones tried to explain it away in his new ruling, but the explanation just doesn’t really make any sense. And he said that if the plaintiffs want to challenge the demolition of McBath’s district, they’d have to bring a new lawsuit. And since we’re already in 2024, that means we’re almost certainly stuck with this map.
Maybe a lawsuit could succeed by 2026. We might not even see a lawsuit though. The Supreme Court might not be receptive to these kinds of arguments about coalition districts, but this is the map that we have for 2024. And McBath said that she’s going to run for the new 6th district, which doesn’t have an incumbent. Her current district doesn’t overlap with it, but she lives in Cobb County, which forms a core part of the new 6th district. And I would say that she’s very likely to win the primary without trouble, and it’s a safely blue seat, so she’s almost certainly going to win reelection. What’s notable here though is that this is actually the second cycle in a row that Republicans have targeted McBath in redistricting, and I think they could really come to regret it.
An analyst on Twitter, Varun Viswanath, put together this great visualization — we’ll link it in the show notes — showing that if McBath wins again, she’ll have represented about 20% of the entire state between 2019 and 2025. That’s wild because a member of the House would normally represent just 7% of the state of Georgia. I would say at this point, McBath is probably the top Democratic contender to run for governor in 2026, or at least a top contender. Brian Kemp will be term-limited then. So Republicans are doing everything in their power to boost her name recognition ahead of that race. I really hope she runs. I’m excited to see what she could do.
Beard: Yeah, absolutely. One note on the forest for the trees aspect of this, obviously, the judge’s original ruling and his revision of it was a very strange series of twists in this case and was very unfortunate. But ultimately, this is about the fact that Atlanta and the broader Atlanta metro area is this big, diverse, very Democratic area, and we could easily have a 6th district and a 7th district that both have the ability to elect a minority representative.
A 6th would be Black-majority while still having a 7th that could allow for a minority opportunity district. And it’s really unfortunate that Republicans go to these lengths with gerrymandering to ensure that doesn’t happen so that they can obviously keep their political power in the state at the congressional level. So whether or not we’ll see another lawsuit, that’s hard to know, but I think you’re right that for 2024, this map is what it’s going to be.
Nir: But you make a good point. Republicans can try to gerrymander their way out of trouble in the Atlanta area, but they can’t do it on the state level. And this area, that diverse district like the 7th that they just shredded, was a huge part of why Joe Biden won in 2020, why we flipped both of those Senate seats, why Raphael Warnock won again in 2022, and why Joe Biden has a chance to win again this year. So, Atlanta is a huge problem, and its suburbs, they’re a huge problem for Republicans, no matter how they draw the lines.
Beard: And of course, likely Senator Ossoff’s reelection campaign will be taking place in 2026, so that’s going to be another huge statewide campaign. So definitely obviously a state that’s not going anywhere, and Atlanta is a city that’s just continuing to grow.
Nir: So a couple of last House updates that we wanted to hit really quick.
Beard: So we just briefly wanted to touch on a couple of things. First off, NY-03, of course, the last time we discussed this seat, George Santos had just been expelled, but we’ve had a number of things moving forward since then. The date for the special election was set for February 13th, so it’s created essentially a six-week campaign timeframe from, obviously, now the beginning of the new year to the 13th, which is really when voters might be paying attention to this district.
I doubt very many people were paying much attention to it during the holidays in December. Democrats unsurprisingly tapped former Representative Tom Suozzi as their nominee while Republicans picked Nassau County legislator Mazi Pilip. The ad wars here have, of course, already begun given the compressed timeframe, but they’re a little one-sided. The Democrats are already up. The DCCC and House Majority PAC have booked about $5 million in airtime. The D-Trip has already launched an ad this week attacking Philip for being “handpicked” by MAGA Republicans, wanting to cut Social Security and law enforcement. While Republicans have not been nearly as aggressive on the TV front — the NRCC has booked less than a million dollars, and that ad buy isn’t starting for another two weeks. Though of course, we could see things pick up much earlier than that at any moment.
So I think obviously the GOP, they’ve always got a billionaire in the back pocket; I assume they’ll put a bunch of ads up eventually. But with a six-week campaign, every day is a significant day’s delay.
And then finally, the other district I wanted to highlight was CA-20 — of course, our old friend Kevin McCarthy. After his disastrous speakership, is it any surprise that he can’t get his own succession plan right? Now when he announced his imminent resignation, the front-runner was seen as state Senator Shannon Grove, and everyone expected her to run. But she announced unexpectedly a little bit before the deadline that she wasn’t going to run for the seat, which left McCarthy and his allies a bit empty-handed.
But state Assemblyman Vince Fong, who’s another McCarthy ally, reversed his decision not to run and jumped into the race at the last minute and now he was seen as McCarthy’s preferred successor. But there was one problem; he had already filed to run for reelection. Now, California is very strict about its ballots over there. It had long been understood that Fong wouldn’t have been able to run for Congress under these circumstances. And Secretary of State Shirley Weber initially blocked Fong from appearing on the ballot for Congress. But a state judge has allowed him on the ballot, ruling for Fong. But Weber has already said she’s going to appeal that ruling. So there’s going to be a number more developments in this case. It remains to be seen if Fong will ultimately appear on the ballot or not.
Nir: Well, that does it for our weekly hits. Coming up, we have an interview with Pat Dennis, who is president of American Bridge, which is a very prominent Democratic-aligned super PAC. We’re going to be talking about their plans for 2024 and a whole lot more. So please stay with us after the break.
Nir: Joining us today on “The Downballot” is Pat Dennis, who is the president of American Bridge, which is the largest Democratic outfit devoted to one of my favorite areas of the political world, opposition research.
Pat, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Pat Dennis: Yeah, thanks for having me. Also, my favorite. I will say that I have one of the most fun jobs in politics if you’re into this kind of thing.
Beard: Well, absolutely. And this is personally exciting for me. Pat and I used to work together. I was at American Bridge more years ago than I would care to count at this point.
Dennis: OG Bridge.
Beard: We did work together for a couple of years, so very excited to have you on. But for those of us who aren’t alums, why don’t you explain to our listeners what exactly American Bridge is? It’s not exactly the most conventional organization, and why does it exist?
Dennis: Yeah, totally. So American Bridge, we were founded in 2010, 2011, right around the first sort of wave of Democratic super PACs. And what we focus on is pretty different from what most super PACs are: vehicles for spending money on campaign ads specifically. We do some of that, but really our bread and butter is opposition research and candidate tracking, and we do that as well as or better than anybody else. And the real cool thing we do is if we can legally give you our work for free, we will give it to you. So other Democratic super PACs focus on the IE side, we are sort of a hub for ‘if you want oppo, we got oppo.’ And also a big chunk of it we publish online for free because ultimately we think it’s better for people to know what these Republicans are up to.
Nir: So let’s dive in on oppo. You just said that’s one of your key functions. How exactly do you go about doing this? I feel like opposition research is one of these dark arts, people may have a conception of it from watching shows like House of Cards or maybe more like Veep. But it’s something that does tend to take place in the shadows or at least out of public eyesight. So how exactly does the whole process work from soup to nuts?
Dennis: Yeah, I mean, we strongly consider it to be a regular art, not at all dark. We’re quite open about what we do. We are not digging through dumpsters; generally, that is not a useful thing to do anyway. What we’re really about is number one, candidate tracking. We have folks on the ground in the states we cover from the presidential race, but more applicable to this podcast, we go down-ballot as far as state legislative races, and sometimes ballot initiatives.
Those are folks who just record Republican candidates saying what they’re going to say. And a lot of Republican candidates will say a very different thing to the Moms for Liberty group than they’ll say to the folks who are at the nursing home. So we’re there to capture all that, have folks who understand the local politics, able to see where they’re maybe lying about their positions, maybe creating some gaps; some things that play well with one group don’t play as well as network TV. So that’s a big chunk of what we do.
And then on the other side is oppo research, which is used to be, I would say the oppo researchers are in DC these days. We’re pretty much a remote organization. But what they’re doing is using public records, news stories, FOIA requests, basically any publicly available information about these Republicans and creating essentially the standard unit of oppo research which is the “Research book.”
And we can get into that a little more in-depth. But a research book is supposed to be comprehensive. It’s everything about a person from everything they’ve done in their career in order, what aspects of their biography are verified, which aspects are not verified, what positions have they taken on issues over the years, pretty much what’s their campaign finance life, what is their personal finance life, how do those things overlap. That’s a big issue area for us, things like that.
So something we’ve actually moved away from, and this is probably a much longer discussion, but as we’ve gone further down ballot and part of why I wanted to come on here is because we really have, I mentioned, gone down as far as state legislative and generally speaking we found the most useful way to do that work isn’t necessarily just to churn out a formulaic research book on 700 different folks running for state legislature because you’re spending a lot of that time formatting text and compiling stuff. So a lot of what we do these days is we do the investigation. We have experienced researchers who go through and basically are trying to write the parts of the research book that matter. You know this one’s going to get on local TV news; this other thing, nobody’s ever going to read it besides the media consultant. And we just write the stuff that’s going to get on local TV news and we get it out there. We send it to journalists. We send it to people in the states. And that sort of methodology, and moving away from being comprehensive, has allowed us to just take on a lot more targets.
And the Republicans help us out there by being uniquely terrible. And sometimes, especially as you go down-ballot, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. Usually, for a presidential candidate, you don’t scroll back two things on their Facebook page and see something disqualifying, but that does tend to happen sometimes on the state legislature side.
Beard: And I think a big part of this, as you talk about going down ballot, is of course the real destruction of local news in a lot of places. Whereas we know there are a lot of reporters and journalists who are investigating presidential candidates to the nth degree. If there’s something out there about a presidential candidate it will get found out; maybe about a Senate or a gubernatorial candidate.
But there are often no reporters covering state legislative races with any real depth. And so I think that’s why it can be so effective that when you dedicate people and time to it you’ll discover things that no one else has been looking for.
Dennis: And another area, I mean, you don’t really have to give Donald Trump credit for anything, but when he did try to steal the election, a lot of down-ballot races that other folks never cared about before, national reporters never cared about; you couldn’t get even the state house reporters to necessarily report on things like the secretary of state’s offices. All of a sudden there was a lot more interest in that stuff.
And when you’re pitching oppo on a secretary of state candidate, if you’re pitching oppo on a presidential candidate, you land a story it’s one of 15 stories that day and it’s one of 1,000 stories over the race. If you’re landing a story on the secretary of state’s candidate, and it’s something really damaging that could end up being 30% of the earned media coverage of the race. So it’s different, but it’s really a powerful political tool.
Nir: Yeah, I mean, you had these Republican state legislators showing up on Jan 6th, and many of them were in safe red districts, but-
Dennis: Showing up on January 6th, but then they run for governor later.
Nir: Right. Right.
Beard: Now you’ve been at Bridge for over a decade; I think Bridge has had its fair number of wins in that time. What are a couple of your favorite research hits that went out and went across the nation?
Dennis: Yeah, I mean, so I can’t obviously talk about all of them. Some of them we do publicly take credit for, some of them we don’t. It’s funny, a lot of folks expect me to say like, oh, this incredible silver bullet investigative story that knocked somebody out of the race. And sometimes that does happen. We are involved in, going way back, Todd Akin-
Beard: Hell yeah.
Dennis: … say, legitimate rape. Our media monitor found that and got that out very quickly. And we’ve had a few other big successes like that over the years. The things that are honestly most interesting to me, are because, for those big ‘knock them out of the race’ hits, you’re almost always relying on the Republican to give you that. You have to be there and able to find it, but you can’t necessarily replicate it if the candidate hasn’t done something disqualifying.
The things that I really like, and Dr. Oz is a good example of this, although he did a lot of stuff that was also disqualifying, but it’s the stuff where it’s a narrative. It’s something about them that’s sort of sticky. Dr. Oz, a big part of that, I mean, he ran into trouble with his issues on abortion, but also he wasn’t from Pennsylvania. And that is not an oppo hit, that is just a true thing. He’s not from Pennsylvania. But it opens up 1,000 other news stories. Dr. Oz at the New Jersey Hall of Fame video that we dug up. A ton of things like that. So I love those big narrative things.
And thinking back to recent races, it’s really interesting to me the extent to which the go-to Republican talking points on abortion went from the normal go-to talking points on abortion to race-ending gaffes in a pretty short amount of time. And a lot of our work in Kentucky, the Kentucky governor’s race in 2023, we had some incredible investigative public records hits there, which I think were impactful. But some of our most important stuff was just like being there to listen to what he said about abortion, which was the main thing that lost that race for him.
Beard: Now, of course, like a lot of the Democratic movement in the wake of the Dobbs decision, reproductive rights have been a huge focus, both in terms, of course, of policy movement, but in a lot of electoral campaigns and a lot of Republicans who are all of a sudden running scared of abortion rights and their record. So tell us some of the things that American Bridge has been doing specifically in the reproductive rights area.
Dennis: Yeah. So the nice thing, the reason I love being at American Bridge, is I worked directly for political candidates for a long time in the research department, and what we would do is I’d get there at the beginning of the year, we’d build up a research shop, we’d have all this great research, we’d have all these videos so well organized, we’d have processes in place, and then election day would come and we’d tear it down and we wouldn’t have it anymore. And then I’d build it up next year again. American Bridge, we’ve been around for a lot of years at this point, and none of the work we do ever goes away, and that has just been a huge advantage for us since Dobbs.
The first thing we did when the decision leaked is we just compiled every Republican we’ve ever covered and we put it online at a website called repro-files.com. It’s repro-files.com. Just every Republican’s past positions and statements and videos and issue papers and questionnaires from their state’s right to life that they signed. We just put that all up online. This is not stuff that they were hiding until the Dobbs decision came down and then you started seeing it come down off their website. You started seeing they were deleting it out of their bios. If they were on the board of some organization, that was getting deleted. So one of the great things that we have is just our archive going back into history.
And on the issue of abortion, it was just a matter of putting it online where everybody could find it and know what these people believe, which is gratifying in some sense the fact that these folks have these terrible positions. It’s horrible that this is what it had to come to make this into such an important issue, but at least we were there and we had the information. We were able to get it out there. And we saw a lot of it was getting used and paid media advertising was getting. Reporters were using it as a resource. So that’s been a huge part of what we’ve been doing on that issue.
Nir: So, Pat, a little while ago you mentioned Todd Akin, which I don’t know, in this world is always going to be one of the great legendary all-time stories, but let’s dig in a little bit more about tracking because it’s not just as easy as sending someone with a camera or, of course, these days, with a phone to follow someone around everywhere 24/7. It’s not like you’re staking them out like a private investigator. What are your dos and don’ts at American Bridge that you’ve developed for tracking?
Dennis: So our trackers, there was a time when I first got into politics — the 2009 election was my first election as I was actually a tracker myself, and what I got on video was important and I wrote up tracking reports — but really what that campaign hired me for was to get up in there, stick that camera up in Chris Christie’s face in 2009, and make him nervous. Make him remember that he’s being filmed and if he screws up we’re going to make hay of it. That is not really what we do anymore, because our capacity to actually use the stuff that these candidates say has just gotten with vertical video with Twitter, with just our giant list of reporters. What we actually want is to quietly sit in the back of the room and record these folks.
So basically, we used to want these candidates to know we were there. These days, we are not disruptive. We’re very quiet. We will frequently not even set up a tripod or a video recorder. We’ll sit in the back of the room with an audio recorder if we have to. We still prefer video. But really no confrontations. Don’t even let them know who you are, if possible. Our goal is to capture as much video and audio as possible.
So in terms of dos or don’ts, don’t make a show, don’t antagonize the staff. Obviously, this has always been true, but don’t touch anybody. And that goes on both sides. I remember in New Hampshire, this was maybe 2015, it was a Rand Paul staffer who walked up to our tracker standing in the back of the room and licked the camera, resulting in some incredible footage and one of the weirdest rapid response meetings we’ve ever had to do.
Nir: Of course, this guy’s working for Rand Paul.
Dennis: Oh yeah.
Nir: I mean, that is so distasteful.
Dennis: Yeah. When Rand Paul interviews, I’m pretty sure they have a test like, what’s the weirdest thing you would do to a tracker? That’s a big part of the Rand Paul hiring process. That’s our thing. We’re pretty hands-off. The trackers are there to be a fly on the wall.
Beard: Now, one thing I remember being pretty interesting about the whole tracking system is sometimes it was really easy to know where the events were. Candidates would publicize things everywhere and you would know their schedule from event to event, and some particularly incumbents sometimes took a very different tack about really hiding their own appearances, which made tracking a lot more difficult. Is that still the case? Do you still sometimes have these hidden Republicans who don’t want to ever have a public event that someone might show up at?
Dennis: Oh, yeah. That is a constant problem. It’s become easier and harder. As things have moved online, there are far more events that we can send a person to; they get kicked out, and we just record the live stream. So that’s become nice, but as you said, there are definitely folks who do not want to be found, and really there is no science, all art for figuring out how to get into that stuff. You have to be on the Facebook pages. Sometimes somebody mentions it in a Facebook comment on a livestream somewhere, and then you’re like, “Oh, well, I guess he’s going to the fish fry next week.” Sometimes you’ve just got to go to an event where he might want to go to that, but we have no indication. So that is definitely a real problem, and it’s just you’ve got to be online all day long trying to find these folks.
Beard: Now, in recent years, as you mentioned, American Bridge has really expanded its rapid response network. It used to be very focused on getting the material and then it was up to others to run with it, and Bridge has really expanded its own capabilities to run with stuff, including some paid media. So which of these have really you found to be most successful in communicating with voters? How has American Bridge’s experience been dipping its toe into really communicating with voters directly?
Dennis: It’s a little verboten for this podcast because our paid media work has really focused, not exclusively, but largely on the presidential races.
Nir: I wondered where you were going with that when you said it was verboten. I was like, “Are we going to be breaking some FEC rules?”
Dennis: You can use the P word on this podcast. We’ve largely been focused on the presidential race in 2020, but we’ve also done just a lot of work. We worked in the Georgia runoffs after the 2020 election, and really our paid media is focused on taking real voters, real people. This is the hardest way if you’re ever going to do ads. If on one end of the spectrum, you have the studio spot where it’s all computer graphics, a stock photo, and a stock video, that’s the easiest way to make an ad. If you want to make your life as hard as possible, commit to taking real people from the actual state who are completely unpaid and just have them talk about their opinions on political issues and cut those into ads. That’s what we do, and we find it is absolutely the most effective way to communicate. We don’t write scripts.
We basically find people who, in 2020, it was largely people who voted for Trump and were disappointed. This time around, it’s largely people, some of whom voted for Trump, some of whom didn’t, but folks talking about their experiences with Biden, the way that the legislation we passed has helped them, and also just like the disappointment with Trump, but also the revulsion at his actions, especially around January 6th and things like that. So we find these people who are actual voters in the states that we’re focused on and we go to their house, we set up a camera, and we talk for a couple of hours, and then we cut that into TV ads. That’s our methodology and we find it tests really well.
Nir: I am always curious about this kind of question, how do you put out the call for folks like this?
Dennis: It’s so hard. This is the nice thing, we’re a few years into this now and we’ve gotten it down. We started out just throwing everything at the wall. Who do you know in the state? We even experimented with hiring paid canvassers to go around and talk to people. Really, what we’ve settled on as the best solution and is working extremely well is we have 75, 80 staff at American Bridge, many of whom have worked in these states. We are working our networks that way, but also we have organizers on the ground who are doing the work the way a field organizer on a campaign would do it, except their goal is to bring people into this paid media funnel.
So that’s been working extremely well. Honestly, I did not expect to have as many people in the pipeline as we do this time around, because people, you hear some negative things in the media sometimes. But what we’ve actually found is people have a lot to say on this stuff, especially people who were disappointed by Donald Trump. They are out there. They are worried he’s coming back and they want to speak out.
Nir: Well, we’ve been talking with Pat Dennis, the president of American Bridge. Pat, before we let you go, where can people learn more about American Bridge, the work you do, and you as well?
Dennis: Yeah. Our website is americanbridgepac.org, but there are a few places you can get to these from americanbridgepac.org. We also have trumpresearchbook.com. That is the research book on Donald Trump. What are all the bad things he’s done? It’s all organized by topic and issue area and every disastrous thing that he’s been involved in, and it’s updated very frequently. Repro-files.com, that’s repro-files.com. That is a giant database of Republicans’ positions on the issue of abortion. And then I’m still on Twitter. I know I shouldn’t be. I’m also on Threads. I’m also on BlueSky. My name is Pat Dennis on all of them. You can find me there. I’m trying to break the Twitter habit, but old habits die hard.
Beard: Aren’t we all?
Nir: It’s a tough one to break. Pat, thank you again for coming on “The Downballot” this week.
Dennis: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.
Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Pat Dennis for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday, everywhere you’re listening to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing [email protected]. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trever Jones, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.