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Politico: America Rising’s New Missouri Outpost

Read POLITICO’s article on America Rising’s newest project in Missouri below:

America Rising’s new Missouri outpost
Maggie Severns
July 7, 2016

As four Missouri Republicans have waged intense, multimillion-dollar campaigns to become their party’s gubernatorial nominee, Democrat Chris Koster has coasted through primary season – but that doesn’t mean the road ahead will be easy for him.

A GOP attack dog called Missouri Rising is dedicated to blocking Koster’s path to the governorship at every turn.

Missouri Rising is the first state operation to be spun off of the conservative opposition group America Rising – and like its national counterpart, Missouri Rising’s goal is to unearth damaging stories and footage. Koster, the state’s attorney general, has benefited from not having to face a top-tier challenger in the August 2 primary, but he is by no means flying under the radar, even as the GOP contest dominates local press coverage.

Missouri Rising has been busy in its efforts to undermine Koster’s candidacy, casting him to the media as an opportunist and quietly gathering opposition research to deploy against him during the general election. They’ve had a tracker following Koster for months, pressing him on whether he’ll attend the Democratic National Convention, and taking careful note of Hillary Clinton’s bits of praise for him during a visit to Missouri – which could help Republicans tie Koster to Clinton in coming months.

“You have just one presumed [Democratic] nominee, and a very highly competitive primary on the other side that takes up a lot of oxygen,” Missouri Rising Executive Director Brian Rogers told POLITICO, explaining that Missouri Rising’s objective at this point is to use its laser-like focus to prevent Koster from turning that imbalance into an advantage. In state races, Rogers added, “lots of people do TV ads and spend a lot of money on TV ads; it’s important. But fewer people are working to influence the narrative on a day-to-day basis” – and that’s where Missouri Rising wants to make its mark.

It launched last year after America Rising was approached by Missouri Republicans – Rogers wouldn’t name names – about starting a state spin-off of its successful opposition research model. America Rising also is in talks to bring 501(c)(4)’s to other states,Rogers said. But Missouri is the test case. The state is seen as ripe for state-based opposition research because of the politics of the gubernatorial race – it’s one of the best gubernatorial pickup opportunities for Republicans this cycle – and because of Missouri’s status as a hotbed for conservative politics and policy.

But figuring out how to take opposition research local comes with challenges. Several operatives in Missouri told POLITICO the firm has had a low profile and little impact thus far. Still, some hope Missouri Rising’s efforts will prove to be a down-payment of sorts toward hindering Koster, especially during the general election.

“On the day after the primary election, you have a built-in infrastructure and data points that you didn’t have time to get yourself,” said GOP consultant Jeff Roe, who is consulting for Republican candidate Catherine Hanaway. “Otherwise, we’d be really starting from scratch.”

For the most part, Missouri Rising employees are housed far from the Show Me State, in a suburban Virginia office building that is home to America Rising’s other affiliates. There, researchers and a communications director are hunkered down, collecting and disseminating their Koster files. Missouri Rising representatives declined to say how much it anticipates spending during the gubernatorial election, though Rogers noted that opposition research costs far less than airing television ads.

Koster’s long track record provides an ideal political vein for opposition researchers to mine.

Koster is a former state legislator and has spent more than 20 years in public office. A former Republican, he unexpectedly switched parties in 2007 and emerged as a popular moderate Democrat. He won the attorney general post soon after, and is considered to have a good shot at replacing Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who is term-limited. He’s also long been rumored to have aspirations beyond the governor’s mansion.

Opponents see his party switch as one example of Koster being calculating and unprincipled, a message Missouri Rising is trying to hammer into the public discourse. Koster also was a focus of a New York Times investigation of attorneys general being lenient with companies who employ lobbyists to woo them.

Koster’s spokesman pushed back at Missouri Rising’s efforts, calling it an out-of-touch out-of-state effort.

“It is the epitome of hypocrisy for this dark money, secretly funded group out of Washington D.C. to be trying to talk about ethics or anything else in the state of Missouri. Their attacks are trite; they’re tired; they’re old,” Koster spokesman Andrew Whalen said. “If they were actually from Missouri, or had an understanding of Missouri, they’d know Koster’s record of fighting for consumers, fighting Medicaid fraud and saving taxpayer money.”

Across the aisle, the four Republicans are locked in a primary where no clear front-runner has emerged. Hanaway is a former speaker of the Missouri House. There is also John Brunner, a businessman; Lieutenant Gov. Peter Kinder; and former Navy SEAL and nonprofit CEO Eric Greitens, who’s playing up his military bona fides in his campaign advertisements.

Outside spending is increasing as the primary approaches, and onlookers expect the GOP nominee to emerge bruised but determined to unify Missouri Republicans. Koster, however, has kept a low profile and been aggressive in his fundraising.

While Missouri Rising’s oppo file could be essential to helping the GOP nominee get out of the gate quickly after the primary, the group’s arrival has barely garnered notice in Missouri, where the lack of campaign finance limits has spurred massive outside spending on state elections. Missouri Rising’s leaders admit it has been a challenge getting people to pay attention to Koster when the Republican primary is grabbing headlines – as is the outside spending itself.

Multiple major political donors in Missouri declined to be interviewed on the record for this story, but some added they had not heard much about Missouri Rising. And several political consultants also said the group hasn’t caught the attention of many donors – or for that matter, the public.

“I don’t think anybody’s really paying attention right now to the messaging with Koster because everyone’s so involved with the messaging in a four-way Republican primary,” said one Missouri-based political operative, who observed that Missouri Rising has a meager 78 followers on Twitter.

One thing that sets state races apart is that state press corps, in Missouri and elsewhere, have dwindled dramatically in recent years. Drawing the attention of the state’s few political reporters away from the GOP primary is difficult, Rogers said – a key difference between running an opposition research outfit in state contests versus in federal elections, in which American Bridge 21st Century and America Rising have mostly focused in recent years.

In addition to tracking and preparing opposition research, Missouri Rising has been working to keep state news outlets focused on its angles-of-choice on Koster throughout the primary. Its experiments with using targeted social media – a “Three Strikes Against Chris Koster” ad aimed at Busch Stadium on the St. Louis Cardinals’ Opening Day, for example – have garnered some attention for their novelty.

And other down-ballot races have benefited from such work: In 2014, comments from Democrat Bruce Braley, that Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley was a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” were spread by America Rising and reverberated widely. America Rising also tracks other gubernatorial candidates, like Democrat John Gregg, who is challenging Republican Mike Pence in Indiana.

Next cycle it’s possible more Missouri Rising-style nonprofits could crop up. “It’s becoming a requirement at all levels of running for office,” Rogers said.

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