June 29--The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce welcomes media coverage of its weekly forums with high-profile politicians and businesspeople.
But over the next few months, as the contest heats up for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Begich, its staff members have been issued special instructions to watch for people "smuggling in video cameras," according to Andrew Halcro, the group's president.
The Chamber of Commerce, and other groups involved in Alaska politics, are on the alert for "trackers" -- the entry-level political operatives aligned with both parties who are paid to follow the Senate candidates around Alaska with their cameras rolling, hoping for a gaffe.
Earlier this month, Halcro said, he asked a tracker to leave a Chamber of Commerce event after he spotted the young man camped out next to Begich and a constituent with a camera "shoved in their face."
"I went up to him and I just said, 'Excuse me, could you put that away?'" Halcro said. "I want the candidates to come and be able to express themselves and not be worried about someone in the audience with a camera who's going to throw it up in an attack ad two weeks later."
When Begich travels to events around the state, he's often followed by Justin Slater of Palmer, who works for a Washington, D.C., Republican group called America Rising. Armed with a camera, Slater captures Begich's speeches and conversations -- sometimes from uncomfortably close range.
Begich says he doesn't mind the attention. But his campaign is not the only one under the microscope.
There are at least two other trackers working on this year's Senate campaign in Alaska, both following Republican candidates. One works for an Outside Democratic group, and another works for the Alaska Democratic Party, compiling video footage and listening to talk radio segments with the three Republican candidates in the race: Dan Sullivan, Joe Miller and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.
The trackers have followed the candidates to appearances in Fairbanks and Anchorage, even to Sitka and to Seward, where a tracker reported sprinting the length of a dock to get a shot of Sullivan in a chartered fishing boat as it sped out of a harbor.
The trackers' presence in Alaska is part of a national trend -- one that's been facilitated by advances in technology that allow nearly instantaneous uploading of hours of video and audio footage. While the trackers aren't always welcome faces at candidate appearances, strategists say that over the last few years, the job has become a standard element of political campaigns, especially in high-profile races like this year's contest for the Senate seat.
"The trackers are our first line, our eyes and ears out there in the field," said Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising, the Republican group that employs 24 full-time trackers and has a presence in 22 states. "They're not there to try to create trouble or ask 'gotcha' questions. They're just there to document what the candidate is saying."
Miller wouldn't authorize an interview with Slater, though he said America Rising has compiled a database of more than 270 Begich events.
The Alaska Democratic Party said its tracker was off-limits, too. The third tracker, who works for a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic group called American Bridge, did not respond to requests for comment -- though he's known to pass out business cards.
Officials at American Bridge did not respond to repeated phone calls, emails and Twitter messages.
But interviews with people involved in the trackers' work shed light on their presence in Alaska politics and their role in the Senate campaign.
Don't lie about who you are
Tracking isn't the most prestigious job, but ask higher-level political operatives -- even in Alaska -- and you'd be surprised to hear how many strategists, consultants, and campaign managers got their starts that way.
Slater, who's tracking Begich, is a member of the Alaska Young Republicans group; he worked with state Rep. Bill Stoltze on his re-election campaign in 2012, doing brochure design and "some sign stuff," Stoltze said.
"It wasn't anything real technical -- he did OK," Stoltze said.
The tracker for the Outside Democratic group, Travis Neff, has a master's degree in finance from Lehigh University and has also worked as an air-quality scientist, according to a professional profile posted online.
He's been on the payroll of American Bridge since August 2012, making roughly $35,000 annually, according to federal campaign filings.
Part of the job description for trackers like Neff and Slater: Show up at as many events as possible and get the candidates on the record. Don't lie about who you are, and don't make a scene that could make you a part of the story.
Trackers look for gaffes, like the 2012 comment from Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape." Akin made that statement to a local TV station, but a tracker for American Bridge helped flag the comments and distribute them to a broader group of reporters.
Trackers' day-to-day duties, however, are geared primarily toward providing campaigns and parties with a broader awareness of where their opponents stand, and what they're doing.
That includes work like compiling the audio and video footage on meat-and-potatoes political issues that can be used for attack ads, or amplifying comments made by candidates when they're speaking to a narrow audience, such as on partisan talk radio shows.
Zack Fields, the Alaska Democratic Party's communications director, said his party's tracker caught two of the Republican Senate candidates endorsing the "Hobby Lobby" lawsuit that's before the Supreme Court, which seeks to overturn a federal mandate for businesses to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives for their workers.
"Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell have only announced their support for Hobby Lobby in a radio interview," Fields said. "They might try to talk to very far right tea party audiences about it, and our job is to try to say: 'That's their position.'"
When it comes to monitoring events in person, trackers can sometimes run into hurdles -- they typically don't get into events on private property. At the end of the Republican Senate candidate debate Thursday night, organizers kicked Neff out of the East Anchorage High School auditorium after he started recording Sullivan in a conversation.
But just because trackers aren't always welcome doesn't mean that they can't be enterprising, or at least try to follow candidates to appearances that aren't advertised publicly.
Neff noticed on a political blog that Sullivan was hosting a June 16 fundraiser aboard a chartered halibut fishing boat; he arrived in Seward at 5:55 a.m. and shot some secondary footage before Sullivan arrived, according to an internal report Neff wrote that was reviewed by Alaska Dispatch/Anchorage Daily News.
"Sullivan came down the docks wearing a camouflage jacket and a Sullivan campaign baseball hat. He said 'good morning' to me just as my camera was coming online," the report says, going on to describe how Neff captured video of the charter "absolutely tearing out of (the) harbor."
"For context, I sprinted whole length of dock for this shot and I barely beat the boat to my vantage point," he reported.
Terabytes and terabytes of data
Political parties, independent groups and candidates have all used trackers in growing numbers since a key moment in 2006, when a sitting Virginia senator's campaign was undone after he was caught on camera referring to the Indian-American tracking him as a "macaca."
In the past, trackers have filmed events with miniature tapes, which were sent back to party or campaign headquarters for processing and storage.
Now, for America Rising, the Republican group, footage is simply uploaded to the Web, with key shots and phrases highlighted so that they're easily searchable when it comes time to choose sections for a TV advertisement.
"When things are working right, you can get out at an event and get a clip back to headquarters, transcribed, uploaded to YouTube and blasted out within an hour," said Miller, the group's executive director. "We've got terabytes and terabytes of data that live in the cloud. If we want to go search for Mark Begich and all the times on video where we have him talking about Obamacare, we can do that."
Miller's group is participating in its first federal election cycle.
America Rising was created in the wake of Mitt Romney's loss in the 2012 election, when Republicans realized they'd lost ground to Democrats in creating political infrastructure outside the traditional party system that was focused on research and tracking.
In addition to monitoring Begich while he's in Alaska, America Rising also tracks him using staff members in Washington when he's working there, Miller said. And it has a "war room" where workers monitor television, radio and committee hearings.
American Bridge, the Democratic counterpart to Miller's group, was founded in 2010, putting Republicans on the defensive in the 2012 elections.
It has a similar library of footage and roster of trackers, according to news reports, and officials with the group claim that as of May, its trackers had traveled some 365,000 miles and covered 5,500 events since the 2012 election.
Both America Rising and American Bridge provide their material to other independent groups and super PACs like the ones that have been spending heavily on ads in Alaska attacking Begich and Sullivan.
Miller says America Rising intends to "hold Democrats accountable," including Begich.
"We want to be able to juxtapose what he's trying to sell voters in Alaska with his record," Miller said.
Familiar faces at campaign events
The candidates, however, say they don't mind.
"I don't know what their strategy is, because what I say in public or what I say in private, it's all the same," Begich said.
Informed that America Rising claims to have archived more than 270 of his appearances, Begich responded: "That's great!"
"That just shows that I'm doing a lot of work," he said.
Sullivan, one of the Republican candidates, has also received ample attention from the Democratic trackers. A spokesman said Sullivan typically makes sure to point out the trackers at his public appearances, but doesn't change his message.
"He'll say, 'We have our friend with American Bridge here recording,'" said Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson. "He'll acknowledge it, make sure people know who he is, and go on. It hasn't affected what he says or who he is -- it's a fact of life."
In fact, the Sullivan campaign's relationship with Neff, the American Bridge tracker, is so cordial that in one case, Neff agreed to step in when a group of supporters wanted to memorialize marching in a parade with Sullivan but lacked a photographer.
"He was nice and took a photo for the group," Anderson said.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at [email protected].
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