Stephanie Grace: Campaign surveillance a blood sport

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

At the start of his first campaign-season town hall meeting earlier this week, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s principal challenger for re-election next year, set out to explain a few things to the packed Clearview Mall meeting room.

Pointing out several young men who were training cameras in his direction, Cassidy warned that they were there to record every word out of his mouth, and theirs.

Be nice to them, Cassidy urged; they’re just doing a job and earning a paycheck. And please don’t take offense if I appear to contradict or distance myself from anything someone in the crowd says. The trackers, as they’re known, are looking for damaging material to post on the Internet, so that, “you, me, our values will be ridiculed.”

“I don’t want you to be ridiculed,” Cassidy said. Left unsaid was the obvious corollary, that he doesn’t particularly want to be ridiculed either.

As people who closely follow politics know, trackers are a constant presence in modern campaigns, particularly the high-stakes, big bucks ones like Louisiana’s 2014 Senate contest.

The goal of the Landrieu partisans, one of whom works for the Louisiana Democratic Party, was indeed to catch Cassidy saying something embarrassing — or perhaps to record him pandering to a pack of purists with language or positions that could alienate all-important swing voters.

Just as useful for their purposes, as Cassidy implied, would be some sort of red-meat rant that Cassidy would have to either embrace or denounce, or perhaps even footage of an angry crowd ganging up on the trackers themselves.

The whole Cassidy event was designed with that sort of caution in mind. Attendees were asked to submit questions in writing rather than step to the microphone and say who-knows-what. And for all the talk of leaving the trackers be, Cassidy’s staffers conspicuously held up their iPads nearby and played white noise to interfere with the audio recording. Just in case — or maybe just to mess with them

They needn’t have bothered. Cassidy, a generally cautious and cerebral sort, didn’t give his adversaries much to work with. He fielded question after question about hot topics on the far right, from the drive to shut down the government to stop the president’s health care law from taking effect, to fear that Common Core educational standards, supported by governors such as Bobby Jindal and voluntarily adopted by states, represent an overreaching national curriculum.

His answers trended toward what passes for moderation in today’s climate, and clearly left some members of the crowd unfulfilled. Cassidy said he supports defunding Obamacare but not if it means cutting off the military and other key government obligations. He said Congress can’t keep the states from adopting Common Core — he’s a states’ rights guy, after all — but opposes making the standards federal.

Cassidy also noted that he doesn’t have anything personal against Landrieu, and at one point he even thanked Democratic colleague Cedric Richmond, not just Republican Steve Scalise, for helping the House pass a measure to keep flood insurance rates from quickly skyrocketing. He didn’t go so far as to note that Landrieu is pushing the same change on the Senate side, just as she doesn’t go around acknowledging that what she passed through committee is known elsewhere as the “Cassidy Amendment.”

It goes without saying that, just as Cassidy’s every public move is being documented, Landrieu’s is, too.

In fact, tracking is apparently expanding into areas previously understood to be off-limits, including the U.S. Capitol and its satellite buildings. A Republican opposition research group called America Rising recently filmed Landrieu simply walking down the hall of a Senate office building. It’s hard to imagine what the researchers hoped to capture, other than a potentially unflattering reaction to being followed in the first place.

Instead, the posted footage shows the senator striding alongside an aide, smiling at the person behind the camera and asking without breaking her stride, “Are you tracking us?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the disembodied voice of a young-sounding woman replied.

“Good,” the still-smiling Landrieu answered.

Among insiders, these tactics have become as routine as both Cassidy’s and Landrieu’s nonchalance suggests, but don’t misinterpret their civility.

Sure, this constant surveillance is just another part of the business these days. But it’s also blood sport.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.