In the spring, news broke that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was spending $12 million to renovate his oceanfront home in San Diego, including an elevator for his cars.
Soon, a mock ad for a “Romney Dream House” started making its way around Facebook, showing a plastic Romney posing next to a Ken and Barbie-style playhouse.
That ad was Laurin Manning’s idea. The Hartsville native works for American Bridge, a Democratic “opposition research” firm in Washington, D.C., that is helping to redefine political campaigning with its Internet strategies.
While South Carolina’s nine electoral votes likely will go to Republican Mitt Romney in November, several S.C. natives are playing key roles in Democratic President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign – in traditional and new ways.
South Carolinians are among Obama’s senior advisers. They also make up some of the hundreds of volunteers who drive to the pivotal “swing state” of North Carolina on the weekends to register voters and campaign for the incumbent. Those are traditional political roles.
Manning, one of the first in South Carolina to explore the political side of the Internet, represents a new kind of campaign operative – a byproduct of the political action committees that have come to dominate this election cycle in both parties.
“We just take the content that our trackers and researchers come up with, and find creative ways to share it on the Internet,” she said.
Hunting for GOP gaffes
If anyone doubts the impact of Manning’s work, consider the case of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri was leading Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill until he told a St. Louis TV station that victims of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant and, thus, wouldn’t need an abortion.
American Bridge quickly spread the footage of Akin’s comments on the Internet, prompting a wave of criticism that culminated with Republican leaders asking Akin to drop out of the race.
“I love it. It’s tons of fun. Every morning I get up and I think, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this,’ ” Manning said. “I really miss the South Carolina focus, but it’s really cool to be able to work on the national scale and have an impact on races all over the country.”
You may remember Manning from The LaurinLine, one of the first S.C. blogs that focused on politics. It was a hobby for Manning but quickly gained popularity.
“When I started the LaurinLine, I wrote about what I ate for lunch. At one point, the LaurinLine had a walrus picture and a quote from Lewis Carroll on the side. I certainly didn’t start doing this stuff with any idea in mind that it would end up leading to a career.”
Now, Manning is paid to hunt for GOP gaffes or weaknesses and exploit them.
For example, she was one of a team of researchers who vetted every possible Republican vice presidential pick. On the day Romney selected U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Manning was ready with a Facebook graphic proclaiming Ryan was “bad news” for seniors, women, students, middle-class families and the gay community. It since has been shared on Facebook more than 3,000 times.
‘It’s about hope’
While many write off South Carolina’s influence on national Democratic races, the state’s early spot on the presidential primary calendar has given many state politicos a chance to shine.
Rick Wade and Trip King are two examples.
Wade, from Lancaster, is one of Obama’s senior advisers who helps craft his message, focusing on strategies for neighborhoods, meeting with pastors and talking with national media outlets about the campaign.
After Obama’s 2008 election, Wade landed a federal job at the Department of Commerce. But he left that position in June 2011 to return to the campaign. “I look at it as an obligation to come back,” he said. “I didn’t have to be asked.”
King, from Columbia, is political director for Vice President Joe Biden – a job that requires him to manage the relationships cultivated during Biden’s long career in politics.
“I’m involved in helping coordinate Vice President Biden’s political activities from a campaign perspective which includes, among other things, outreach to elected officials and community leaders, and working with the Obama-Biden re-election team to maximize the effectiveness of the vice president’s campaign travels.”
King got his start in politics in 1974, working for Charles “Pug” Ravenel’s campaign for governor. He then worked for then-U.S Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-Charleston. Most of his campaign work has been focused on South Carolina. This time, however, he has a more national role.
“It is challenging but nonetheless fun and rewarding,” King said Friday, after making a stop in Columbia before heading back to the Obama-Biden campaign’s Chicago headquarters.
While Wade and King have made a career out of politics, many more South Carolinians are volunteering for Obama.
State party chairman Dick Harpootlian repeatedly has asked S.C. Democrats to campaign in swing state North Carolina – and Annejanet Harp of Columbia is one of them.
On weekends, Harp often drives to North Carolina to register voters at churches, part of the Obama campaign’s “People of Faith” initiative.
“I’ve made it a point to volunteer” she said. “It’s about hope.”