The Republican National Committee is planning to cleave liberal voters away from Hillary Clinton as part of a campaign to counteract her forthcoming pick of a vice presidential running mate.
In a detailed memo outlining its strategy to combat Clinton's VP choice, the committee says it will frame the selection as both a cynical play to certain constituencies and as an emotional letdown for voters who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primary.
The goals, the memo says, are to "drive wedges between these top contenders and either Clinton and/or traditional Democrat constituencies, such as labor, environmentalists, and gun control advocates, and other traditional left-wing constituencies;" and "[w]here applicable, frame the choice as an insult to the large, deep base of Bernie Sanders supporters who are struggling with the notion of supporting Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democrat nominee."
Titled "Project Pander," the RNC's strategy memo also reveals which candidates the committee views as most likely to be selected. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) occupy the top tier; Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) are in the second.
Authored by Raj Shah, the research director and deputy communications director at the RNC, the memo telegraphs a campaign of subterfuge that is traditionally executed in private. Parties normally don't like their fingerprints on the attacks against the opposition. But this has been an untraditional election, with both sides relatively unapologetic about the mud they are slinging.
Sean Spicer, the RNC's communications director and chief strategist, said that the committee already has conducted extensive field research in San Antonio, Boston and Richmond, Virginia (homes to Castro, Warren and Kaine, respectively) in addition to investigative work on all six potential choices.
"We've audited previous research efforts from allied folks, ID-ed relevant video and historical paper archives," Spicer said. He added that the committee had filed more than 20 freedom of information requests at the local, state and federal level on these potential VP choices and was ready to deploy operatives for further dirt-digging within 12 hours of an announcement.
Clinton's campaign was unperturbed by the RNC's operations, a spokesman said in an email. Nor were they worried about a fissure happening within the party, noting that recent opinion polls show Democratic voters coalescing more quickly around Clinton than Republican voters around their party's presumptive nominee: Donald Trump.
"We aren't concerned," said spokesman Brian Fallon. "While the Democratic party is quickly uniting around Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump actually appears to be losing ground in his bid to consolidate Republicans. More and more members of Trump's own party are realizing he is temperamentally unfit to be President, and there is no amount of Googling by RNC researchers that can fix that."
Though the RNC's research efforts underscore the high stakes of Clinton's choice of running mate, the actual value of a vice presidential pick tends to be overstated. Data shows that the selection rarely helps win a state's electoral votes, though it can marginally improve voter perceptions of a ticket. A pick can, however, create its share of headaches, either by providing damaging distractions (see: Eagleton, Thomas or Palin, Sarah) or by underwhelming voters (Lieberman, Joe or Quayle, Dan).
The RNC's overarching goal is to duplicate, in one form or another, such a letdown.
With respect to Kaine, the committee's plan of attack will be to paint him as a "career politician" whose positions on trade and abortion makes him unpalatable for supporters of Sanders. (Without irony, the RNC's memo also says they will portray a Clinton/Kaine ticket as too liberal for the electorate because of Kaine's support for Obamacare and his time as a lawyer for the ACLU).
For Castro, the committee will argue that he is woefully inexperienced and that the limited record he has is a disappointment to liberals: from supporting NAFTA to pushing, while mayor of San Antonio, to get a Connecticut-based gun manufacturer to move its headquarters to the city.
"Castro could easily be portrayed as a John Edwards-esque pick," the memo reads, "whereby someone with good looks but a thin resume is viewed as a novice on the national stage."
A Warren choice, the RNC concedes, would go over well with Sanders supporters. But it would be "an extreme lurch left" that the committee would paint as "intensely liberal and uncompromising." Interestingly, the RNC hints that it would use the selection of Warren as a means of diminishing Clinton, both by playing up Warren as, in some ways, the more powerful of the two and by portraying Clinton as captive to her base.
"A Clinton-Warren ticket reeks of insincerity," the memo reads.
(For a complete rundown on the RNC's forthcoming lines of attacks, you can read the full memo here.)
Many of the individual attacks that the RNC plans to level at potential VP picks have been used before. Kaine, for instance, took heat from liberals for his stance on abortion when he was named chair of the Democratic National Committee; Warren endured charges that she exaggerated her Native American heritage while running for Senate in Massachusetts.
The presidential campaign, however, is a much larger stage and it comes with much deeper scrutiny. The RNC's gambit is that Donald Trump's unique appeal to working-class white voters -- including many who backed Sanders' candidacy -- also represents a potential pitfall for Clinton as she rounds out her ticket.