The top strategist for Ron DeSantis’ super PAC privately told donors that Vivek Ramaswamy posed a threat to the Florida governor — and bragged that the super PAC was behind an avalanche of opposition research targeting the rival candidate.
“Everything you read about him is from us,” Jeff Roe, the leader of the DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down told the gathering of donors. “Every misstatement, every 360 he’s conducting or 180 that he is going through in life, is from our scrutiny and pressure. And so, he’s not going to go through that very well, and that will get worse for him.”
Roe was speaking just hours before the first GOP primary debate, in remarks captured in an audio recording obtained by POLITICO. During his question-and-answer session, he conceded that if Ramaswamy had “a big night” at the debate, it could prove problematic for DeSantis. “That’s not great for us, short term,” he added.
Hours later, Ramaswamy would become a focal point of the debate, with the multimillionaire entrepreneur and first-time candidate trading barbs with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Campaigns and allied super PACs often peddle opposition research on their opponents to the press in hopes of landing negative stories. But it is exceedingly rare that a top strategist is caught on a recording admitting as much. And Roe is no mere operative. Never Back Down has taken on a central role in trying to secure the nomination for DeSantis, spending tens of millions of dollars to support a major voter persuasion and advertising operation.
People may think that news organizations have legions of Woodwards and Bernsteins fanned out across the country, poring through old courthouse records or public business records and talking to anyone they think may have some dirt to dish on a candidate. They don’t. They don’t have the money, for one thing. No, the days of Woodward and Bernstein, intrepid investigative reporters, are over. Investigative reporters have been replaced by people who keep a big basket under the transom to catch the dossiers and other materials that the various campaigns drop on opposing candidates.
Campaigns that can afford it often spend lots of money on “opposition research.” The research can be for perfectly legitimate things, such as positions candidates have taken on issues. Or it can be for personal dirt, substantiated or otherwise. If they pass it to the media, the campaign, of course, wants to keep its role secret. In this way, reporters are seldom investigators. More often they’re facilitators. It’s easier work.
In Devil's Bargain, Joshua Green describes how Steve Bannon used the press. In a 2015 report, a slightly updated version of which appears in the book, he wrote:
[Breitbart editor Wynton] Hall peppers his colleagues with slogans so familiar around the office that they’re known by their abbreviations. “ABBN — always be breaking news,” he says. Another slogan is “depth beats speed.” Time-strapped reporters squeezed for copy will gratefully accept original, fact-based research because most of what they’re inundated with is garbage. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” says Bannon. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”
The reason GAI does this is because it’s the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media. Hall has distilled this, too, into a slogan: “Anchor left, pivot right.” It means that “weaponizing” a story onto the front page of the New York Times (“the Left”) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com. “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem,” says Hall. “We live and die by the media. Every time we’re launching a book, I’ll build a battle map that literally breaks down by category every headline we’re going to place, every op-ed Peter’s going to publish. Some of it is a wish list. But it usually gets done.”
Once that work has permeated the mainstream—once it’s found “a host body,” in David Brock's phrase—then comes the “pivot.” Heroes and villains emerge and become grist for a juicy Breitbart News narrative. “With Clinton Cash, we never really broke a story,” says Bannon, “but you go [to Breitbart.com] and we’ve got 20 things, we’re linking to everybody else’s stuff, we’re aggregating, we’ll pull stuff from the Left. It’s a rolling phenomenon. Huge traffic. Everybody’s invested.”