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Opposition research a ‘modern campaign reality’

AP reporter John Miller takes a look at the role of opposition research in congressional campaigns and what the campaigns are digging up about their opponents in the 1st District congressional race; click below to read the full story. It was opposition research that enabled the Vaughn Ward campaign to snap back with Congressman Walt Minnick's past late property tax payments when Ward's own late payments were reported; such research  "reveals a modern campaign reality," Miller reports.

Idaho House hopefuls do research to damage, defuse
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — After Idaho media reported this week that Republican U.S. House candidate Vaughn Ward was late on his Valley County property taxes, it took just minutes for him to pay his $434 bill.

Within the hour, however, Ward's campaign was also on the offensive, circulating a document to reporters outlining how U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, was late on his property taxes multiple times since 1999.

This wasn't something somebody ginned up quickly: There were photos of Minnick's home and investment properties, details of their skyrocketing values, even a table showing the congressman had $712.94 in late payments and interest.

Its origin? The properties embedded in the three-page Word document appears to indicate it came from the National Republican Campaign Committee.

Ward's counterattack reveals a modern campaign reality, as candidates and political parties across America unleash teams of so-called "opposition researchers" on rivals, poring over their court records, family histories and tax filings. Sifting through dirty laundry might secure some kind of advantage down the line — or help a candidate with an antidote to a potentially damaging story.

Reporters often get calls that start something like this: "Hey, did you hear about...?"

"Every candidate uses an opposition researcher to get this information," said Ryan O'Barto, Ward's campaign manager. "The stakes have risen. In the age of the Internet, it makes it a lot easier to search about facts on people."

Ward faces state Rep. Raul Labrador in the May 25 GOP primary; the winner will take on Minnick.

O'Barto pays Alexandra, Va.-based Haley O'Neill LLC, an opposition research firm, to gather material on campaign foes.

Labrador has also hired outside help to do his opposition research.

"In every campaign, you're always trying to find out if there's anything you can use," Labrador said. "You also better do some research on yourself. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses."

John Foster, Minnick's campaign manager, says he keeps his sleuthing in-house, including staffers who film Ward's events.

"I view it more as backup and protection," Foster said. "When accusations fly in the heat of campaigns, it's good to have research, to make sure that what's being discussed is factual."

The National Republican Campaign Committee has about a half dozen opposition researchers scrutinizing Democratic campaigns, including in Idaho. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is doing the same thing on Republicans.

Though Ward was on the receiving end of the National Republican Campaign Committee document about Minnick's late tax payments, he hasn't been endorsed in his primary race against Labrador, said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman.

The committee isn't taking sides in primaries with its research, she said.

"It's to use against a Democrat, not in support of one candidate or another," said Burgos on Thursday.

Labrador said he hasn't asked for, or received, opposition research results from the National Republican Campaign Committee.

Another opposition research piece about Minnick distributed by Ward's campaign to reporters this week details the Idaho congressman's friendship with President Bush's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

The document appears aimed at linking Minnick to bailouts and the New York investment bank, which is now the target of mortgage securities fraud charges; Goldman Sachs-linked donors have given Minnick more than $10,000 since 2008.

Still, Minnick's own opposition researchers might also highlight how Ward's campaign got thousands from John Whitehead, a former Goldman Sachs chairman.

For those gathering the information, it's like being a partisan investigative journalist whose only subject is "the other guy" — and his or her past transgressions, supposed or otherwise.

Opposition researchers in the 2010 Idaho campaign, for instance, have long since pored over Idaho's courts database.

There, they've found details of Ward's 2001 divorce from his first wife and speeding tickets; Minnick, also married for a second time, once drove too fast in a school zone; Labrador, for his part, got a speeding ticket in March.

Minnick brought in $231,000 in campaign cash during the last quarter, while Ward raised $167,610, giving both more resources to devote to opposition research than Labrador, who raised just $35,763.

But Labrador and Minnick's and Ward's campaigns downplayed any money advantage, saying the costs of such research pale in comparison to airfare, lodging, logistics or mailers needed to spread a campaign's message.

Opposition research often takes just a computer — and gumption.

"It's just shoe leather and time," Foster said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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