Behind the scenes of opposition research in NC politics
It's part of the seamier side of politics, and it can grab headlines, upend candidacies and even swing races. We're talking about opposition research, or "oppo" — basically, digging up dirt on your political opponents. Bryan Anderson wrote about oppo in North Carolina politics this week for the online publication The Assembly, and he joins us now to talk more about it.
Marshall Terry: So first, let's define opposition research. It can include everything from finding old court cases to chasing down rumors of affairs, and whether or not a candidate actually lives in their district. What makes for good oppo?
Bryan Anderson: I think the three essential pieces to really good opposition research is first and foremost, it's got to be accurate. If you don't have the truth on your side, your stories quickly going to unravel and you'll find you're going to do more harm to your cause than help to it. So number one, it's got to be accurate. Second important thing to oppo is it's got to be something voters care about or want to know. There's a lot of skeletons in people's closets, and voters might say, well, ‘How does that impact me?’ or ‘What does that say about their ability to shape policy in a way that affects me?’. And then, really, the third and final piece is, would it be something that wouldn't otherwise be known to the general public? So it's got to be something accurate and true. It's got to be something people care about and it's got to be something that's new.
Terry: And who are the people doing this opposition research in North Carolina? Based on your reporting, it seems like a real mix of party loyalists, political action groups and other people directly involved in campaigns.
Anderson: I mean, you said it right there. Really anyone can do opposition research if they want. But it's basically prying into people’s personal lives. And we see people do that on social media all the time these days. But really the people who are paid opposition researchers are usually working for a political action group, usually working for a state, national or local party, or they’re political consultants. So it can be a wide mix of people.
Terry: Now one of the main subjects you write about is Charles Hellwig, a self-described ‘right-wing nut.’ Who is he? And how did his oppo research help sink Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham in 2020?
Anderson: Well, he's a proud ‘right-wing nut’ and what he means by that is he wants the most conservative candidate to win. He is a very important figure in the 2020 U.S. Senate race. You might remember the Cal Cunningham affair upended that race and helped Thom Tillis, the Republican, get reelected. And Charles Hellwig was the person who helped break (the news of) the affair and word of it.
Terry: Do you have any idea of what he's doing this time around with this upcoming election?
Anderson: Yeah. So Charles is working with Erin Paré. She's a House member — in the State House, I should say — who is running for reelection. She said she's exploring the possibility of (a) congressional run. So Charles Hellwig is helping her out. Charles is also helping John Hardister run for labor commissioner in the 2024 election. And he is also helping Fred Von Canon with a congressional seat. And Von Canon is looking to prevent Sandy Smith, a Republican businesswoman from eastern North Carolina ... he's looking to win the nomination over her. Sandy Smith, as you might remember, lost to G.K. Butterfield and Don Davis in 2020 and 2022. So this sort of goes back to Charles' philosophy of electing the most conservative Republican — but emphasis on the one that can win. And he's hoping Fred Von Canon can do that over Sandy Smith.
Terry: And of course, it's not just Republicans who do opposition research, of course. So you also write about a group called American Muckrakers PAC that focused their fire on former U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn. And now they're targeting Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is running for governor next year, and (they) say he's an opposition researcher’s dream.
Anderson: Yeah. David Wheeler is the president of the American Muckrakers Pack, and that was created by Moe Davis. And Moe Davis ran against Madison Cawthorne in 2020 and lost. And he was very sour about that loss. And Madison Cawthorn was a very interesting character, to say the least, during his time as a congressman. And so Moe Davis created this group to unseat Madison Cawthorn. And according to David Wheeler — who is running for insurance commissioner as a Democrat currently and is still president of the American Muckrakers PAC — David Wheeler says to me that his eyes are turned to Mark Robinson, and that's where they're going to be planning their next candidate to really, really take aim at. So first it was Madison Cawthorn they unseat, they helped unseat. Then they nearly unseated Lauren Bobert in Colorado. And now they're looking to prevent Mark Robinson here in North Carolina from becoming the state's next governor.