WASHINGTON -- On the morning of Aug. 19, an employee of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century was eating his breakfast while monitoring the media appearances of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin. He had already spent countless hours listening to the GOP House member, so he knew a big moment when he heard it: That morning, on a local politics show, Akin made his now-infamous "legitimate rape" comments.
American Bridge blasted the video out to the media as fast as it could.
Akin's candidacy has since spiraled downward, his funding cut off by key national Republicans. When Akin later refused to step aside for a replacement candidate, American Bridge released its full file of video and research revealing other outrageous Akin remarks, which had been collected over the course of months by staff in Washington, D.C., and a full-time tracker following the candidate across the Show Me State.
The fast-moving campaign against Akin is just one notable example of what this atypical super PAC has been doing since it was formed less than two years ago. Instead of focusing on million-dollar television ad buys, American Bridge has carved out a role for itself as the source of critical information for other progressive groups.
Founded by former conservative journalist-turned-progressive media watchdog David Brock, American Bridge is a political version of Brock's not-for-profit conservative media watchdog Media Matters, providing research and video on conservative politicians. By combining three techniques commonly used by political campaigns -- research, tracking and earned media -- American Bridge provides hard-hitting facts and footage to other Democratic groups to use in their own ads targeting Republican candidates.
"No one had ever taken all three of them and put them together in a way to help change narratives, to help boost other groups," said American Bridge President Rodell Mollineau about his PAC's strategy.
Andy Stone, a spokesman for House Majority PAC, one of the groups working with American Bridge, said that while other groups had attempted to provide either research or tracking in the past, it was "not in as comprehensive and effective a way that Bridge has done it this cycle."
"They've been our eyes and ears on the ground during the campaign," said Jeff Gohringer, press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters. "They've allowed us to be more efficient in what we do and deciding where we spend our money. They're out there tracking candidates and doing research, and we've been able to spend less time on that and actually go out there and put money in ads."
The main goal has been to find those moments when conservative candidates deviate from their prepared script and contradict previous positions or pander, and then to publicize those moments -- either through other groups' ads or through social and traditional media channels.
"[Romney senior strategist] Eric Fehrnstrom could have written our mission statement when he was talking about the Etch-A-Sketch," Mollineau said. Candidates may think, "Yeah, we said all this sh*t, and no one was paying attention ... They're not gonna care, they're not gonna matter," he continued. "But that's where we come in."
Over the past year, American Bridge has collected thousands of pages of research and thousands of hours of video. Its team has logged more than 300,000 miles tracking candidates across the country. In the process, the group has been helping to build a streamlined, progressive infrastructure seeking to get more out of less as Democratic super PACs, unions and other issue groups go up against the Republican behemoths connected to Mitt Romney, Karl Rove and congressional Republicans. The four major Republican super PACs focusing on federal elections have together raised more than double the total raised by the four top Democratic super PACs this year.
"We were never going to match these guys dollar for dollar, so we had to figure out ways to get creative and figure out ways to fight and scrap," Mollineau said.
By the end of September, American Bridge had raised $10.6 million, with big contributions coming from the same group of donors that funded efforts to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004, including billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis.
In a bare-bones second-floor office in Washington, close to two dozen American Bridge researchers monitor and collect information on assigned races . This work is aided by 19 to 22 trackers who follow the candidates around and file reports. The trackers also aid the researchers by obtaining documents only accessible in person.
The best-known instance of tracking came in 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) pointed out Indian-American tracker S.R. Sidarth, a campaign volunteer for Democrat Jim Webb. Allen was captured on Sidarth's camera calling him by the racist slur "macaca." Allen's campaign went into free fall after the incident, and he lost to Webb by the slimmest of margins.
Catching a candidate making outrageous comments is always a possibility in tracking: American Bridge recorded Nebraska Republican Senate candidate Jon Bruning calling welfare recipients "raccoons" and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) referring to immigrants as "dogs." But Mollineau doesn't see those "gotcha" moments as the real point of the practice.
"It's not finding someone when they say something outrageous," Mollineau said. "It's when you've got people, candidates, Republican candidates, who are pandering to the Tea Party base in a primary, and then the day after the primary is over they're moderate."
Each night, American Bridge's trackers turn in reports providing all of the details of their candidates' activities for the day: what they said, who introduced them, deviations from their normal stump speech and so on. Researchers back in Washington look at that information to pull out hypocrisies or deviations from previous statements.
One example of a deviation Mollineau provided involved, again, George Allen, who is now seeking his old Senate seat. The tracker recorded Allen telling a father concerned about his military son being sent to war without proper body armor that the country should never send troops into battle unprepared. Seeing the tracker's report, the researcher assigned to the Virginia race was able to quickly dig up then-Sen. Allen's votes against spending authorization bills that increased funding for troop body armor.
"That's where one of our best places to take a foothold in is -- finding these hypocrisies, finding these inconsistencies and pointing them out," said Mollineau.
Going into the home stretch of the 2012 election, the work done by American Bridge could provide a lot of ammunition for the efforts of other Democratic groups.
"This is the first time that everyone is using the same research and everyone's kind of using the same tracking footage," Mollineau said. "What we've been able to do is to work with all the other progressive organizations on the third-party side. So the unions, the other PACs like Priorities USA and Majority PAC and House Majority PAC, and we're providing them the research that they're using for their advertising campaigns, direct mail, so on and so forth."
"It's always been helpful, and it's certainly informed House Majority PAC's strategy in various districts," Stone said about American Bridge's research and tracking.
"By streamlining this -- we're all on the same page with the same research, the same tracking footage -- [it] helps to consolidate the message," Mollineau continued.
Having built a major database on dozens of Republicans, including a number of potential future presidential candidates, American Bridge isn't planning to fade away after Nov. 6. Mollineau said the group will continue to research and track candidates in 2013 and 2014, even expanding to governors' races and, possibly, some state legislative campaigns.
In a warning to Republican candidates, he said, "We will be around, and we're not going anywhere."