The Best of Opposition Research in the 2018 Elections

The November 2018 elections were eventful, to say the least. Some of the most interesting turns in races throughout the country were powered by public records and the researchers who love them. From campaign finance and lobbying records, to Foreign Agent Registrations and even the avoidance of public disclosures, here’s how public records brought some of oppo’s best ads, losses, and dropouts in 2018.


In June 2018, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted an investigation that found that Lt. Governor Casey Cagle “received more than $240,000 from about 85 lobbyists, their family members or firms.” By comparison, his four opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary received financial support from “about a dozen lobby supporters combined.” In particular, Cagle received “about $145,000 from 75 car dealers,” and then helped stall a “bill that used-car dealers worried would raise taxes on their customers.” According to Mo Thrash, one of the car dealer lobbyists, “We look forward to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and the Senate once again stopping the tax increase, as they have done in the past.”

According to Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group, Cagle’s lobbyist contributions “shows he puts moneyed interests above the voters of Georgia.” She added, “The fact that he is basing his policy off his relationships with lobbyists and their clients is a problem. It would appear if you want something done, you need to give Casey Cagle a campaign contribution.”

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they uncovered this story by looking through public campaign finance and lobbying records:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed about 4,000 donations to Republican Lt. Gov. Cagle’s campaign for governor through this spring and used lists of lobbyists and their clients to determine money flowing from lobbyists, their clients, and associations for various businesses and occupations that lobby the General Assembly. The AJC also reviewed hundreds of contributions to ‘independent’ funds created by Cagle supporters. The AJC compared those figures with lobby contributions to other Republican and Democratic candidates for governor.

Despite finishing first in the May primary for Governor, Cagle lost to Secretary of State Brian Kemp in the July runoff.


Following the money trail also proved fruitful for The Dallas Morning News, who found that “Sen. Don Huffines made a six-figure donation to a shadowy nonprofit weeks before it trashed fellow Republican and Senate hopeful Angela Paxton.” According to public filings, Huffines contributed $150,000 to the American Liberty Network, and soon after the group sent out “mailers and made robocalls attacking Paxton and her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton.” The catch? Paxton was in the middle of a “brutal Republican primary race for the Senate District 8 seat with Huffines’ twin brother, Phillip.” Although Phillip Huffines denied any involvement with the mailers or robocalls, a spokesman for Paxton said, “This deceitful behavior falls squarely on the shoulders of Phillip Huffines.” Despite outspending Paxton 2-to-1, Phillip Huffines lost his primary race in March.

Elsewhere in Texas, a Foreign Agent Registration application filed with the Department of Justice revealed that Omri Ceren registered in 2010 to “work on behalf of the Gbagbo regime regarding the Ivory Coast conflict.” Two problems here: 1) Gbagbo was the president of West Africa’s Ivory Coast that plunged the country into civil war when he refused to step down as president. He reportedly “oversaw a campaign of murder, rape, and ‘other inhumane acts,’” and is currently on trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. 2) Ceren is currently a national security adviser to Senator Ted Cruz. This detail was uncovered through a press release issued by Cruz’s office in April.

According to documents signed by Ceren for the Justice Department, he was to “render services” to the “Government of Cote d’lvoire” in relation to “the current conflict over the November 28, 2010 elections.” Complicating the matter, Ceren appears to have no “formal credentials in national security” according to his LinkedIn, and Senator Cruz has been “criticized for tolerating brutal dictatorships that don’t represent direct threats to the United States.”


It’s not just foreign lobbying disclosures that can get you in trouble, but also domestic. In May 2018, the Dayton Daily News reported that “U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci failed to disclose nearly $50,000 in political contributions while registered as a Washington lobbyist starting in the late 2000s.” According to Renacci’s campaign, he never lobbied and was only registered when he worked for a consulting firm as a “precautionary measure.” His campaign further claimed that he filed to deactivate his lobbying status in 2009, however, “An AP review found Mills didn’t file the companion form required to deactivate Renacci’s registration until 2011.” In addition, “Renacci continued to file and digitally sign lobbyist disclosure reports, other than the two he missed, through mid-2011, as an active lobbyist would.”

According to Federal Election Commission records, “Renacci gave $26,875 in federal donations to other Republican candidates and party organizations that he didn’t disclose on lobbyist forms and $17,450 to his own campaign.” In numerous instances while registered as a lobbyist, Renacci either stated that he made no contributions when he did, or he failed to file any disclosure reports at all. Renacci lost in November against Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown, who led the district with 53 percent of the vote.


For an example of oppo research utilized in paid media by a candidate, look to Washington, where Democrat Kim Schrier launched a TV ad that portrayed her Republican opponent as “corrupt for his past association with [Michael] Mastro, a one-time major Seattle real-estate developer and financier whose business collapsed in a wave of bad debt after the 2008 financial crisis”:

In the Schrier ad, to a soundtrack of melancholy piano music, a male narrator says [Dino] Rossi’s businesses were bankrolled by Mastro, ‘the same Michael Mastro indicted for money laundering and bank fraud.’ It continues: ‘Mastro spent millions funding Rossi’s real-estate deals. One deal alone netted Rossi $600,000. Mastro even slid Rossi $50,000 in an off-the-books personal loan, a loan Rossi was caught hiding from state regulators. There’s enough corruption in Congress. Keep Rossi out.’

Schrier’s ad relied on numerous public sources. In one instance, land records commonly found at most Recorder’s or City Clerk’s offices showed that “When Rossi and other investors, including two statehouse lobbyists, bought a Mastro-owned Federal Way apartment building in 1997, Mastro loaned the investors $2 million toward the $2.5 million sale price.” Rossi and the other investors later sold the building for a profit of $600,000. Rossi’s personal financial disclosures revealed that he failed to report the $50,000 personal loan, and campaign finance records show that “the Mastros also donated a total of $11,400 to Rossi’s 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial campaigns.”

Kim Schrier defeated Dino Rossi in the general election with 53 percent of the vote.


Gone are the days of Harold Hills getting ahead without producing their credentials. In August, FLA News journalists, aided by the National Student Clearinghouse, a non-profit that partners with universities to verify academic degrees, uncovered Florida state House of Representatives candidate Melissa Howard had falsified her undergraduate degree. Howard dropped out of the Republican primary race for the 73rd District in mid August following the exposé, but not before claiming the allegations were lies spread by her primary opponent.

According to the FLA News, Howard,

Offered to send yearbook pictures and even provided a picture of her at a graduation ceremony. When FLA News asked for the one document that would verify graduation – a diploma – Howard promised to send an electronic copy but did not. She claimed it was in her mother’s storage unit in Ohio.

The New York Times later reported that Howard, in an attempt to clear her name, “tried to refute the accusation by posting a photo posing with what appeared to be her diploma.” However, The Times reported, officials from Miami University of Ohio said they had no record of the degree pictured, a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, and “does not even offer a degree in marketing.” Howard dropped out of the race a week after FLA News broke the story.


In October, the Colorado Democratic Party launched an offensive on state treasurer candidate Brian Watson for a history of “unpaid taxes, failed businesses, and legal troubles” documented with public records on a website (no longer public) Public records reportedly showed Watson had tax liens dating back to 2011, and a pattern of “getting sued for unscrupulous business practices, and tanking businesses,” which the party said:

Is made all the more troubling given the fact that Watson has already loaned his campaign $648,000 – and spent nearly all of it – despite still owing personal creditors and money to the government.

Watson, meanwhile, argued that his experience with “economic meltdown” makes him the best suited to manage Colorado’s finances.

In 2012, Watson, then a state House candidate, was dogged by similar allegations in a mailer documenting back taxes and campaign contributions, which the Colorado Government Alliance, who sent the mailers, argued showed a propensity for Watson to make political contributions to further an agenda of tax breaks for millionaires like himself.

Watson lost the 2012 House race, and lost the Treasurer race to Democrat Dave Young in November 2018.


Sometimes, public records influence elections in less direct ways. Scott Walker, recently ousted Governor of Wisconsin, was subject of allegations from three former aides who said they were “told not to create documents that would have to be turned over under the public records law.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Peter Bildsten, the former Financial Institutions secretary, said Walker’s office:

Routinely told secretaries to steer clear of creating electronic records, speak with one another on personal cellphones instead of state devices and present sensitive information in person.

Paul Jadin, former director of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, gave a similar account, telling the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in 2015 that “administration officials were told at the start of Walker’s first term not to use state email or phone systems to share important information.”

Former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall, in his book “Unethical: Life in Scott Walker’s Cabinet and the Dirty Side of Politics,” reportedly wrote,

That he was told to fax information to the governor’s office ‘to avoid creating a traceable record,’ was scolded for sending emails to the governor’s office and was called to the Capitol ‘countless times’ so information could be conveyed in person.

Walker was defeated by Tony Evers in November by a 1.1 percent margin. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature subsequently passed a series of bills “that would weaken the governor’s office and transfer power away from the Democratic-elect attorney general and give it to the Legislature,” a power-grab Walker has signaled he supports.

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