Republicans running for seats in state legislatures are seeking to expand upon their tracking program in 2022, hoping to use recent victories in Virginia’s House of Delegates races as a blueprint going into the midterms.
In 2021, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) partnered with America Rising, a national GOP research and communications firm, for the first time to track a number of Democratic state delegate candidates across the commonwealth.
Political tracking is the practice of following and recording candidates on the campaign trail with the hope of obtaining footage or audio of the candidate saying something that could paint themselves in a negative light. That footage or audio is then often used in political advertisements or pitched to journalists for potential stories.
To be sure, campaigns and political organizations have long employed trackers, particularly for high-level races. And Democrats caution there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the RSLC’s program and note that the race for the chamber has not been decided yet. But Republicans argue their expanded program could open more doors for their state legislature candidates going into the next cycle.
“Our partnership for Virginia shows how this could translate to other states,” said Joe Gierut, communications director at America Rising.
It’s perhaps fitting that Virginia was the test case for the Republicans’ program. The state was the location of one of the most infamous tracker-related debacles in recent memory.
In 2006, then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) pointed out a tracker at one of his campaign events and publicly made a racially charged comment about him.
"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt. Macaca or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent, he's following us around everywhere,” Allen said, gesturing toward an Indian American tracker named S.R. Sidarth. Allen apologized and insisted he didn’t know the word had racial undertones. He ended up losing the election.
Six years later, then-presidential candidate and now Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Memo: Is Trump the GOP's future or in rearview mirror? Momentum builds to prohibit lawmakers from trading stocks Shame on Biden for his Atlanta remarks — but are we surprised? MORE (R-Utah) was recorded at a fundraiser saying "there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what" because they are dependent on government and don’t pay income taxes. The quote followed him the rest of the election cycle.
Fast-forward to today, and tracking is becoming a more regular occurrence among state legislature-level candidates. And experts say it likely won’t end there.
“It’s going to go to a level that you probably haven’t even thought of in some ways,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “The next thing I think are school board elections.”
In total, the RSLC said America Rising tracked 573 campaign events and traveled over 15,000 miles for Virginia’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and 14 competitive House of Delegates races.
It's impossible to pin down just how much of a difference the tracking program made.
Republicans cited footage that was caught of Del. Nancy Guy (D), who was defeated by her Republican challenger Tim Anderson last week, appearing to call some voters “stupid” and say they should be informed. The RSLC said the Democratic candidate who lost was someone they tracked, though that could be a function of trackers focusing on competitive races.
The party did face headwinds going into the elections, being largely outspent by many of their Democratic opponents, but GOP candidates benefited from now-Gov.-elect Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Schumer tees up doomed election reform vote The Memo: Is Trump the GOP's future or in rearview mirror? The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems barrel towards voting rights vote with no outcome MORE’s (R) popularity at the top of the ticket.
“Ultimately the performance, I think, was more on Youngkin than on national targeting,” Holsworth said.
But Republicans are crediting the party’s tracking program, in part, with what was a close race for the chamber overall.
“We still barely pulled out these races and barely took back the majority,” said RSLC communications director Andrew Romeo. “What that tells us is campaigns matter, tactics matter, doing everything you need to do to run winning campaigns matters and we can’t just assume that the environment is going to be great in 2022.”
The RSLC says Republicans outperformed their expectations after losing a total of 22 seats over the past three elections in the House of Delegates.
But technically not all of the races are over yet.
Fifty races in the House of Delegates had been called for Republican candidates, as of Thursday. However, races in two Hampton Roads-area districts are headed toward recounts, which will determine the balance of power in the chamber.
Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) and Democrats backed off of their original concessions after incumbent Del. Martha Mugler (D) walked back her own concession amid a tightening race against Republican challenger A.C. Cordoza in the 91st district. Meanwhile, Republican Karen Greenhalgh’s lead over Del. Alex Askew (D) narrowed in the 85th district.
“I’m not sure what they’re celebrating,” said Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). “We’re still in a potential tied chamber situation.”
However, experts say it’s unlikely that an official recount will change the votes in both districts.
“That would be unusual,” Holsworth said. “The largest change in votes typically has already occurred. It’s when they do these recanvassings and they find out whether or not they transposed the vote or a number or somebody didn’t hear a number when they called it incorrectly. That’s when you usually get the larger change in votes.”
Post said that Democrats did not notice many of the GOP trackers at their events, saying she believed a lot of the tracking that was done was simply media monitoring.
“That’s frankly not different from anything we’ve done,” she said.
Post said the DLCC had a full-time tracker dedicated to Virginia. She said the DLCC tracked 100 events themselves, including 24 open events.
“We didn’t even need a partnership. We did it on our own,” she added.
Additionally, the DLCC has a relationship with American Bridge and a network of state research consortiums.
And the party has touted victories in races, like in the 10th district, where incumbent Del. Wendy Gooditis narrowly won reelection to a third term. Republicans were paying increasingly close attention to the district, given its inclusion of Loudoun County, which has served as the epicenter for the nationwide debate over parents' role in shaping what is taught in schools.
Democrats acknowledge that they are facing an uphill battle going into next year’s midterms, given the historical trend of the sitting president’s party losing seats during their administration’s first midterm campaign cycle.
“We know what we’re facing. It’s tough to win a majority of districts in a state. We’re competing against the RSLC’s tremendous spending advantage. They have tons of resources, and we’re competing on rigged maps,” Post said, referring to Republican-drawn districts in states.
On top of that, Republicans performed well during the 2020 elections in state legislative races. The party currently controls 54 percent of state legislative seats in the U.S., while Democrats control 45 percent of seats.
Post said going into 2022, the DLCC will employ its state-focused press and research model.
“We’re doing that in part because we know it’s a tough year and Republicans are running total extremists,” she said. “Many of these Republican candidates are saying really out-of-touch things at their events, so we’ll continue to fight hard to hold these folks accountable in what is shaping up to be a tough environment in 2022.”