Democratic opposition researchers scurrying to unearth the sins of potential Republican presidential candidates can rest easy: GOP operatives, especially on Mitt Romney’s team, have already done a lot of the work.
“There’s an awful lot of oppo sitting in Mitt Romney’s inbox,” says Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican with ties to Senator Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush.
And that opposition research came from the candidates themselves as they divulged a great deal of personal information to Romney and his top campaign aides during the vice-presidential vetting process in 2012. Those candidates, many of them too new to federal office to run for president at the time, now stand as some of the most formidable competitors for the Republican nomination in 2016. If Romney decides to run, he’ll have an exhaustive understanding of his potential rivals’ weaknesses. If he decides not to run — Jeb Bush’s avowed interest diminishes the likelihood that Romney will try again — rival consultants think his aides might take that information to other campaigns.
Such a scenario requires the files to exist, though. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s senior strategist for the 2012 campaign, says that Rubio and others who made it onto the vice-presidential shortlist have no need to worry. “These were not files that were distributed, and it was handled with the utmost discretion, and they were not circulated,” Stevens tells National Review Online. Beth Myers, the Romney adviser who managed the vetting process, ran such a tight operation that not even he saw the files, he says.
Rubio concurs: “I thought they were extremely professional, and I have full confidence in the process they undertook. I thought it was a thorough process, and I was fully comfortable with it.”
Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) says that Romney, whom he bested in the 2008 primary, has too much integrity to leak information obtained during the vetting process. “And besides,” he adds, “it would backfire.”
What about leaks from someone on Romney’s team, though? For their post-election bestseller Double Down, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin were able to obtain embarrassing information about Governor Chris Christie (R., N.J.); they said the info turned up in the vice-presidential vetting process. The pair wrote about a Justice Department inspector-general report that faulted Christie for spending too much money on travel as a U.S. attorney, a tenuous connection between Christie and Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, the governor’s alleged habit of steering contracts to donors and allies, and even the suggestion that Christie had too close a relationship with a female aide.
“It’s very disappointing,” Christie told CNN during an interview about the leaks. He also told the news network that Romney had apologized for the indiscretion of his aides, saying he was “embarrassed and outraged” about it.
The leaks have a silver lining for Christie, Rick Wilson says, because they have turned potential scandals into old news well before the 2016 election gets underway. “Putting out your sins on the front end reduces the power of other people to compromise you with them,” he observes. (Rubio, whose financial problems received some attention in the last election, could similarly benefit from those 2012 attacks.)
But the Christie episode is one reason for lingering questions about the 2012 vetting process: Some Republican consultants simply don’t believe the Romney team’s claims that the files have been destroyed. “Yeah, bulls***, they’re sitting somewhere,” says one GOP operative, who notes that Romney’s vetters produced “very detailed” reports on the weaknesses of the governor’s potential running mates.
This is not to claim that the vetting files would contain a wealth of career-ending anecdotes, in part because any politicians with major skeletons in their closets are eliminated from vice-presidential consideration very early in the process.
“Almost all the things that are discovered in vetting can be handled,” Wilson explains. “It’s very rare that a guy will say, ‘By the way, I’m a serial killer.’ But they’ll say, ‘I’ve got a tax lien,’ or, ‘I was in a lawsuit,’ or, ‘I cheated on my wife.’ . . . Almost all of those things can be talked about and talked through and handled and managed.”
Furthermore, campaigns can find a lot of that information through their own opposition research. “It’s easier to find some of that stuff than it was twenty years ago or ten years ago,” says Terry Casey, a Republican strategist close to Ohio governor John Kasich. “There are secrets, but there’s not as many secrets as what one would think.”
Not that anyone in the business would pass up the opportunity to read the files.
“If Romney decides not to go, who cuts a deal with him to get those packages?” Wilson asks.
No one, Stevens insists: “It’s a plot point in House of Cards, but it’s not in reality.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.