The Democratic National Committee is conducting full-scale opposition research on multiple Republicans it believes could challenge President Donald Trump for reelection — or are likely to run if he does not.
The effort, which began in late spring, covers Vice President Mike Pence, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, among others.
“With Trump’s tumultuous presidency in complete chaos, we are prepared for all scenarios,” said DNC research director Lauren Dillon, confirming the campaign to POLITICO.
In the case of Republicans like Pence and Kasich, the team of over two dozen DNC researchers is mostly updating the existing research books they deployed in 2016, according to Democrats familiar with the arrangement. For the others, the operatives are combing through voting and governing records, compiling financial files, searching for conflicts of interest, and saving clips on their relationships with Trump.
For an opposition party to be scrutinizing potential intraparty reelection rivals to an incumbent president just seven months into his term is highly unusual. But the start of the Trump presidency — marked by unprecedented staff turnover, the appointment of an independent counsel and a perpetual state of chaos — has been nothing if not unusual.
In recent months, the Democratic staff has increased the pace of its Freedom of Information Act-style records requests in multiple states. It has dispatched researchers to courthouses to collect legal records pertaining to the potential candidates. Among the destinations so far: Indiana, where Pence served as governor until January.
The topic of a 2020 election without Trump as the nominee is an extremely delicate one for Republicans: Pence and his aides publicly lashed out earlier this month after a New York Times report suggested he and others were prepping for potential runs if Trump were to pass on a reelection bid.
“As the Vice President has said repeatedly, the only election in 2020 that he is focused on is the reelection of President Trump and Vice President Pence,” Pence press secretary Marc Lotter told POLITICO in response to a question about the DNC effort.
Trump has a team working on his 2020 reelection bid already, and presidential primary challenges are once-in-a-generation occurrences. The last one was in 1992, when Pat Buchanan failed in his attempt to oust President George H.W. Bush.
But with Trump’s approval rating falling to dangerous lows and fellow GOP leaders publicly opposing him more frequently than ever before, operatives on both sides have pointed to other Republicans’ activities as evidence of their interest in running.
Pence has built up his political operation both inside and outside the White House, for example, and Kasich has refused to rule out the possibility of a run while loudly criticizing the president — though he has said he is not planning to take Trump on.
Sasse — another Trump critic — drew notice among Trump’s allies by appearing in Iowa earlier this year.
The potential candidates’ aides brush off questions about their ambitions.
“I think the Democrats would be better served coming up with a better economic policy rather than planning to rely on Trump’s unpopularity,” said Kasich’s political adviser John Weaver.
“How Democrats waste their money is up to them, but this is pretty funny,” added Sasse spokesman James Wegmann.
Haley spokesman John Degory offered, “I don’t know or have anything to share on that.”
Operatives on both sides of the aisle preparing for 2020 have also started speculating about the intentions of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as former Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“Needless to say, there is no historical precedent for this kind of challenge to a sitting president this early in his term. I do think it’s important to begin to have these discussions, if for no other reason than to make it clear that there remain Republicans unstained by Trump’s presidency,” said Charlie Sykes, a veteran influential conservative radio host based in Wisconsin.
Nonetheless, there’s no consensus around the usefulness of an early effort like the DNC’s. Multiple Democrats and Republicans noted that each recent case in which a president received a primary challenge ended with a significantly weakened commander in chief winning his party’s nomination, but losing reelection. And a scenario in which Trump were not running at all would also signal a massive shift in the electoral landscape.
To get to the point where another candidate is even considered, “the circumstances that would compel or permit such a change would have to be so remarkable, so sweeping, so unprecedented that any oppo research on a particular candidate would be rendered moot by the very circumstances that occasioned the change,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican strategist in New Hampshire and a former state attorney general who advised Kasich in 2016.
Rath added: “I would think, if I were a Dem, I would really want to run against Trump in ’20 rather than any one else.”
Democrats are expected to have a messy primary with dozens of candidates of their own, and Republicans are amassing their own research in advance of that contest. The GOP opposition research firm America Rising has publicly launched efforts against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, much like they did against Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election cycle.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has roughly 20 staff members divided between its war room and research office tracking public statements by — and issuing public record requests on — a range of Democrats, aiming to identify the potential candidates’ top vulnerabilities.
The DNC effort is not the lone attempt to kick-start preparations for a 2020 race that includes Republicans other than Trump. Democratic opposition research group American Bridge has assigned three staffers to a Pence project of its own, BuzzFeed reported last week. But the DNC’s push is the largest in scale, so far ahead of the election.
It’s a reflection of the committee’s Trump-era focus on research as central to its efforts. While the organization’s staff tends to disband after presidential elections, then-DNC chair Donna Brazile kept the full research team intact last year, and it remained in place to zero in on Trump when the new chairman, Tom Perez, took over in February.
But it’s also a move to shore up the party’s files on potential 2024 candidates.
Democrats had little research done on Trump when he announced he was running, unlike the six years’ worth of planning they had done for Romney by the time he launched his 2012 campaign. The glossy bound research file distributed by American Bridge to reporters in 2014 famously did not even include a section on Trump.
While American Bridge had started building files on likely 2020 candidates by October 2016 — when it looked like Clinton would cruise past Trump — that effort stalled after the election.
So this new campaign not only signals to the rest of the party that its 2020 preparations should begin in earnest, just seven months into Trump’s first term, it’s also an attempt to avoid being caught flat-footed, said Erik Smith, a senior adviser to both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“It’s much harder,” he said, “to compile, analyze and summarize opposition research in the heat of a campaign.”
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