Barry Loudermilk, a candidate for an open U.S. House seat, got a strange email the other day: Was he willing to let a for-profit website market a video he made with public money?
The awkward wording of the note eventually set off alarms in Loudermilk’s camp and, after some digging, his aides traced the note to an address across town. More specifically, to an address linked to the campaign manager for state Rep. Ed Lindsey, another Republican running for the seat.
There’s a layer of secretive jousting beneath every big-time competitive campaign, and the skulduggery can be immensely helpful to a candidate if done right — and irrevocably embarrassing if foiled. This behind-the-scenes gamesmanship is raging ahead of a record-early May 20 primary election, and it involves a delicate dance between candidates, political operatives and the media.
The Loudermilk affair, though, stands out by pulling back the curtains on the secretive ploys bubbling just under the radar. It’s a glimpse of the complex game of campaign gotcha that involves surreptitious emails, a heated rivalry and a fishy character named “Joe Sargent.”
This isn’t the first of its type during this busy election season, and it certainly won’t be the last. Already, a timely leak by a rival campaign yielded one of the most damaging hits yet: a video of U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Senate candidate, saying he would like poor children to pay a nominal fee or perform janitorial work in exchange for their meals.
The footage of the “free lunch” comments was leaked to the left-leaning Huffington Post (some insiders suspect a Republican rival sent it there to throw off the trail), and Kingston has spent much of the weeks since trying to explain away the comments.
But it can backfire. Take the 2006 flap involving Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who was challenging Democratic rival Mark Taylor in a bid for the party’s nomination for governor. Cox’s camp was accused of adding embarrassing details to Taylor’s Wikipedia page, and the revelation forced her campaign manager to resign in disgrace.
This torrent of tips and accusations during campaign season can strain even the most vigilant fact-checker.
Candidates usually seek to stay above the fray, claiming no knowledge of the dirt their camps are pushing until it’s in print or online. Then you can expect to see it in a campaign ad or hear it invoked in the next debate.
Political operatives make their reputation on digging up this dirt, but sometimes they are reduced to peddling piddling tidbits to score an easy hit. And make no mistake: Reporters, eager for the scoop, play the game just as ably.
A veteran of the craft is Loudermilk strategist Dan McLagan, a GOP operative with an acerbic wit and a sixth sense for politics. Like most behind-the-scenes types, he typically prefers to let the leak speak for itself, at least at first. But he came forward this time to illuminate what he called “the anatomy of a hit.”
Just as surprising was the Lindsey campaign’s willingness to come clean about its foiled plot — and then double down by criticizing Loudermilk for responding to the phony email by asking for more details.
Here’s how it all unfolded. Loudermilk, a former state senator and ex-Air Force specialist from Cassville, had been taking heat for a video featuring the candidate and his three children called “It’s My Constitution” that was paid for by the Georgia Department of Education.
Rivals have blasted Loudermilk for copyrighting the video and linking it on a nonprofit website he uses to also sell his book. Loudermilk said he’s never made any money on the recording and that it was copyrighted to protect the recording from outside use.
Given this backdrop, any hint that Loudermilk is using the video for personal gain could be devastating.
In early December, Loudermilk received an email from someone calling himself Joe Sargent asking whether he could pay the candidate a “small fee” to use the video on his site for promotional purposes.
When Loudermilk asked for more information about how the video would be used, he got a response asking for a “sense of pricing you might use” to sell the recording. He didn’t respond but also didn’t think much of it — until reporters started calling him asking about the copyright.
That’s when he dug up the emails from the depths of his inbox and sent them over to his aides. They tracked the emailer’s IP address to an account linked to Lindsey’s campaign manager, Tom Krause. Soon, the outrage machine was cranking.
“If you’re going to launch a blundering, unethical attack, make sure you don’t try to conjure up evidence — especially if you are attacking a veteran who worked in intelligence and whose son is an investigator,” McLagan said.
Rather than deny the email or ignore the accusation, though, Krause offered an unconventional response: an unapologetic confession for making a “perfectly reasonable inquiry” into a political opponent after getting a tip from a supporter. The campaign, he said, was investigating whether Loudermilk was selling the taxpayer-funded video for profit.
“Loudermilk isn’t the victim here,” Krause said. “The victims are the taxpayers of Georgia.”
The emails show Loudermilk wasn’t peddling the video. But Krause said he was struck that Loudermilk didn’t say in his response that the video was produced with public money and instead wanted to know how it would be used. “Why would that matter?” he asked.
To Loudermilk’s team, it would seem, it matters a lot.
“This proves that Barry wanted this video on the Constitution to be free for everyone because, when offered money for it, he ignored the offer,” McLagan said. “Thanks for proving us right, Mr. Lindsey.”
Welcome to the 2014 campaign, dear readers. Try to keep your head on straight.