S.C. governor candidates look for dirt

'If they say they're not, they're being dishonest,' says Bauer's Swiftboat architect

lchapmanl@thestate.comDecember 6, 2009 

The candidates for governor of South Carolina are convinced someone is scouring public records and delving into their pasts, looking for dirt.

And they're right.

Who's doing it? Their opponents.

The goal is to find, if it exists, something that can be used against them to question their character or judgment.

Like what?

- Delinquent taxes

- Controversial votes

- Ties to big money lobbyists

- An embarrassing detail about a candidate's personal life

The State newspaper asked the dozen candidates running in the 2010 governor's race - Democrats and Republicans alike - if they are investigating their opponents. Some say they are using what is called opposition research, a vital tool in big-money, modern politics.

The candidates who say they are not conducting opposition research - which can cost tens of thousands of dollars - are being naive, political experts say.

Or maybe something else.

"If they say they're not (conducting opposition research), they're being dishonest," said Chris LaCivita, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign strategist hired by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

LaCivita says every campaign should investigate the opposition - and its own candidate. Campaigns, he said, don't want to be surprised by an opponent. And if the opportunity presents itself, a campaign wants to throw an opponent off stride.

LaCivita knows something about opposition research and how it can impact a race.

Working for President George W. Bush during the 2004 presidential campaign, LaCivita was vetting Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry when he was told of a group veterans who were willing to publicly cast doubt on Kerry's military service record. The U.S. senator from Massachusetts was running, in part, as a war hero.

Kerry cast himself as the candidate who had seen the horrors of war and, therefore, would make more informed decisions about committing troops in the two wars in which America was engaged.

LaCivita said the resulting anti-Kerry ad campaign - now known as the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth - was a classic example of what opposition research can do in the right hands. It turned a Kerry strength into a weakness.

'VOTERS WANT TO KNOW'

Swiftboat-style campaigns turn some voters off, making candidates reluctant to admit to using opposition research.

But Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party, agrees with LaCivita: Opposition research in certain races is smart politics.

Fowler also thinks candidates doing background work on one another can expose important details about who is seeking office - details that might not otherwise come to light.

"Voters want to know a candidate's values," Fowler said. "If there is material out there that reflects on that, they want to hear about it."

Fowler said she advises candidates running for the highest offices to investigate themselves and to review background in-formation about their opponents. Fowler, a longtime veteran of S.C. politics, says there is usually a file floating around on any veteran Palmetto State politician with details of finances, relationships and voting records.

It's all part of the vetting process, she says.

Fowler says investigating an opponent is especially important in primaries, when Democrats and Republicans are seeking to nominate the strongest candidates.

"The candidate is not going to tell you himself that he cheats on his wife or has a drug problem or hasn't paid his taxes," Fowler said.

LaCivita said opposition research in a primary is sometimes the only way to find an edge.

"In a race like a GOP primary, where you have three top-tier candidates who agree on 99 percent of the issues, you are not going to find a whole lot of disagreement," LaCivita said.

Opposition research cuts deeper than ideological beliefs. It can show patterns of behavior, LaCivita said, and perhaps predict how a candidate might respond in a crisis. "That's how you find out who truly is the best CEO for the state of South Carolina."

WHO'S LOOKING AT WHOM?

The State asked eight of the candidates for governor if they were conducting opposition research.

Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia and state Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington, both Republicans, said they are not spending money on opposition research.

Democratic candidate Dwight Drake, a Columbia lawyer, also said he is not spending money on opposition research.

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster and Bauer, both Republicans, and Democrat Mullins McLeod of Charleston said they are investigating their opponents' records.

Democrat Jim Rex of Fairfield County would not answer. His spokesman, Zeke Stokes, said the campaign does not publicly discuss internal strategy.

The campaign for state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat, also did not provide a response.

Lachlan McIntosh, McLeod's spokesman, said McLeod's campaign will be reviewing other candidates' voting records and lobbying clients.

"Voters have the right to know where the candidates have stood on important issues and what kind of legislation they have been paid to influence," McIntosh said, an obvious reference to Drake, formerly a highly paid lobbyist.

Rob Godfrey, McMaster's spokesman, equated the McMaster campaign's plan not to use opposition research to running "a positive campaign."

He said Barrett and Bauer, on the other hand, "have both hired campaign advisers who are known for their work as opposition researchers."

Godfrey is referring to LaCivita, who works for Bauer, and Tim Griffin, a former aide to George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove. Bauer has paid Griffin's Little Rock, Ark.-based political firm $30,000. The Bauer campaign says those payments were for demographic research about voters, not opposition research on candidates.

Barrett said last week that it would be irresponsible for him not to conduct opposition research because voters need to know the difference between his record and his opponents' records.

Rod Shealy, who runs a Lexington-based political consulting firm and is an unofficial adviser to Bauer, said spending on opposition research almost always remains cloaked in secrecy.

"Almost never do you see any expenditure for opposition research" on a campaign finance disclosure, Shealy said.

CROSSING THE LINE?

The campaigns agree using opposition research to unearth and disclose embarrassing details about a candidate's family should be off limits.

S.C. Republican Party chairwoman Karen Floyd said in a perfect world, there would be rules against publicly embarrassing a candidate's family members for political gain.

"But it is almost like drawing a line in quicksand because there is no way to regulate it," Floyd said.

Floyd knows what it is like to be vetted by opponents. She was the Republican nominee for state education superintendent in 2006. She narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Rex, now running for governor.

Floyd said the vetting process was painful for her family. Political opponents, Floyd said, raised questions because her children did not share her last name. Floyd said she was forced to disclose that her children were adopted, a fact she said was reported in the media.

Floyd said she wasn't ready to discuss with her elementary-school-aged children their birth circumstances.

"I thought it was harmful and unnecessary," Floyd said. "It had nothing to do with my qualifications for superintendent of education."

Shealy said spouses and children are off limits.

Shealy said he learned that from the late Lee Atwater, the South Carolinian considered an architect of modern opposition research.

Through a search of public records, Atwater found Willie Horton, an incarcerated sex offender who murdered a woman while on a good behavior furlough from prison. Atwater tied Horton to Democratic presidential nominee Mike Dukakis. The Massachusetts governor did not survive the infamous Willie Horton ad campaign, losing the 1988 presidential race to Republican George H.W. Bush.

"I heard (Atwater) say it many a time: 'Anything on a public record, in performance of your duties is fair game,'" Shealy said, adding, "In 30-something years of going through (opponents') public records, I have never used a divorce filing" or anything else that would drag in a candidate's family members.

Fowler, however, said there are times when details about a candidate's family can be relevant.

"Let's say a candidate's child is arrested and a candidate uses his influence (to get preferential treatment)," Fowler said. "That might be relevant."

Personal attacks can sometimes backfire. Even attacks based on public records can backfire if the public decides they are not fair.

An example is a 2002 anti-Mark Sanford ad. In that ad, Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, then locked in a GOP primary runoff with Sanford, used some of Sanford's votes in Congress to argue Sanford did not support the military.

The Sanford campaign said Peeler was cherry-picking protest votes that Sanford had made to protest pork-barrel spending.

The public sided with Sanford.

"He did a great job playing the victim," Shealy said.

RISE OF THE INTERNET

The Internet is changing the rules about opposition research, sidestepping a traditional gatekeeper of information, the mainstream media. The Internet has made it much cheaper to disseminate information. Candidates don't have to buy ads on network television or in big city newspapers to find a large audience.

The Internet also provides some anonymity, something the campaigns lament.

"In the age of blogs, e-mails, Facebook, things spread quickly," Fowler said. "Most of it is rumors. They don't have any accuracy to them, and there is no accountability."

Bloggers, those who breathlessly cover politics, almost guarantee a home for opposition research of any - or no - quality.

Some blogs also have financial ties to candidates and political consulting groups.

"(Bloggers are) all on somebody's payroll," said Bauer adviser LaCivita. "So you cannot treat what any of them say with any degree of objectivity. They're all being paid by someone's campaign to push fiction."

Floyd said the rise of the Internet means "nothing is off limits in the 21st century."

Fowler and Floyd said that's a reason many people do not want to run for elective office.

The Internet has made it easier to disseminate damaging information, but it has also made it easier to launch opposition research.

The objective is to never be surprised. And to gain an advantage, if there is one to be had.

Said Shealy, "We certainly are going to Google our opponent."

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