The Rules of the Game

Ohio Senate Race Gets Heated Over Opposition Researchers

The role of opposition researchers has led to a fierce exchange between Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and his challenger, Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel.

On March 21, Brown’s campaign manager, Sarah Benzing, mailed off a letter of terms to Mandel’s campaign, which would allow opposition researchers to attend campaign events. Benzing called for access to public events, as well as rallies that are closed to the press. The opposition staff would also refrain from disrupting events, as long as campaign staff did not interfere, under the proposal.

"When asked, opposition staff will truthfully acknowledge their presence and will not have to pay entrance fees," she wrote. "I’m proposing we make both Senator Sherrod Brown and Treasurer Josh Mandel’s public events more accessible."

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The Mandel campaign responded with a tongue-in-cheek message agreeing to the demands if Brown passes a budget in the Senate, lifts bans on domestic oil drilling, and ends his support for "higher taxes, more borrowing from China … and allowing more federal intrusion into the lives of Americans."

Benzing was not amused.

"In failing to take our initial letter seriously, you are doing a disservice to Ohioans who deserve to hear from both candidates," she responded.

Mandel spokesman Travis Considine said that Brown campaign’s letter reflects a campaign centered on politics, rather than policy.

"They wanted us to essentially agree to these demands about who and where people can stand at our events," he said. "We thought it was more constructive to focus our list on the issues that matter to Ohioans."

Considine said the Brown campaign is confusing opposition researchers, who look to chronicle gaffes and campaign missteps, with members of the press, who seek to chronicle events.

"Josh is going to criss-cross the state over the next eight months, knocking on doors and speaking at events," he said. "Ohioans are going to meet him firsthand; they don’t need Brown’s trackers to do that for them."

Brown campaign spokesman Justin Barasky defended the the use of opposition researchers.

Opposition staff may not be members of the media, but they can be equally important at documenting ongoing campaigns, especially in the small towns peppered throughout the Ohio landscape, according to Baraksy. He added that raw film of campaign events will give voters the clearest possible picture of the candidate.

"Why not make the candidates as accessible as possible? Why not put video online of what your candidate says … unless you don’t want people to see," he said. "The only thing I can surmise is they don’t want Ohioans to see the other side of Mandel because the more of Mandel they see, the less they'll like him."

Opposition researchers are hired by campaigns to dig up dirt on political opponents, spending countless hours monitoring the candidate’s past speeches and activities. The role is largely behind the scenes, but it is evolving. The availability of camera phones and other small recording devices has led to a dramatic increase in opposition researchers whose sole purpose is to monitor an opponent’s political events.

One such opposition staffer helped to bring down popular Virginia Sen. George Allen in 2006, after he posted a video to YouTube of Allen using a racist term. The video was the turning point in the election as Democratic challenger Jim Webb overcame a double-digit deficit to beat Allen.

The scuffles between the Mandel camp and trackers from liberal groups, such as American Bridge 21st Century, have been documented at numerous events, including Mandel’s campaign announcement on March 1, according to the Akron Beacon.

"Mandel’s staff tried to obstruct the view of two people shooting video of the candidate’s public address, [Press Club board member David] Cohen said. One camera belonged to American Bridge 21st Century, a self-proclaimed Democratic-leaning political action committee," the Beacon reported.

Considine acknowledged that both sides shared fault on that particular day; he said the campaign largely plans to "ignore the trackers" going forward, but only within reason.

"These guys are trying to get in under the guise of press … but that is not the case and working on some sort of agreement serves no purpose," he said. "We won’t allow them to push people around if their focus is disrupting our campaign."

Barasky disputes the notion that opposition staff has disrupted any Mandel event—including the campaign launch.

"These folks are instructed to stand in the back, not make a sound and leave when they’re done," he said. "There is just no proof [that they've disrupted any event]."