Political paparazzi: A rare look inside Indiana’s world of political trackers

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INDIANAPOLIS – Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Braun was peppered with questions when we arrived at a campaign event this past summer.

“Why did you say you were going to self-fund?” a campaign tracker asked with the camera rolling.

During the encounter, a woman threatened to call police. A confrontation occurred. And the tracker, who works for the Indiana Democratic Party, eventually left after he was asked to.

No matter how you interpret the video obtained by CBS4, the confrontation shows the high-stakes and oftentimes unseen world of political tracking. And the stakes couldn’t be higher in Indiana’s race for U.S. Senate.

“So a tracker is usually someone just starting out in politics,” Alexandra Smith said, executive director of America Rising, a political action committee based in Washington that calls itself the premier opposition research firm for the Republican Party.  "Someone's who's looking to cut their teeth on the campaign trail, to catch Democrats in these exciting moments where they could be used in a campaign ad or be used in the news.”

This midterm election cycle, America Rising said it has 25 full-time trackers on the ground nationwide, including a tracker dedicated to following Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly.

The organization’s tracker was there when Donnelly launched his re-election bid and has followed him to public events ever since, by their own account traveling thousands of miles and showing up at more than 200 events in Indiana alone.

Braun is also followed by a Washington-based political action committee. American Bridge is compiling hours of video as well – everything from fish frys in northern Indiana to outside private fundraisers in Washington.

American Bridge said it has 35 full-time trackers in 28 states ahead of the midterms.

“Candidates understand that this is the 21st century,” Courtney Foley said, the tracking director for American Bridge. “It’s 2018. This is part of what politics is now.”

In Indiana, though, tracking has also gone terribly wrong.

In 2012, Marion Superior Court Judge Jose Salinas was leaving a state Democratic gathering in Indianapolis. According to Salinas’ account and police reports, a tracker for the Indiana Republican Party started following him along the interstate for 16 miles. After police were contacted, the tracker told investigators he though Salinas was actually Donnelly, who he was hired to follow.

This election cycle, the Indiana Republican Party doesn’t have a hired tracker.

“It’s a very strange thing,” Christina Hale said, a Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor in 2016. “I had my first tracker at a town hall meeting when I realized this guy’s only taking a photo of me, and there were a lot of elected officials and candidates there. And so I asked him are you a tracker? And he got very, very defensive. And yeah, he was out to get a bad picture of me, which he got.”

None of the trackers working in Indiana would talk on camera. Their work, though, will live on through Election Day and beyond. The organizations also wouldn’t reveal everything they’ve captured, in perhaps a sign of suspense for a last-minute October surprise.

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