Throughout his quest for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney has been haunted by the infamous tale of the time he put his dog on the roof of his car during a long road trip and Dogs Against Romney, a protest group dedicated to keeping the story at the forefront of the campaign conversation. In the past month, Dogs Against Romney garnered a dramatic surge of attention. However, while much of the coverage of Dogs Against Romney characterized the group as a purely grassroots movement, its recent notoriety got a substantial boost from the behind-the-scenes support of Americans United for Change, a super PAC-like group with extensive ties to the Democratic establishment.
Dogs Against Romney spokeswoman Kitty Hendrix admitted the group’s much talked about protest outside the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in Manhattan last Tuesday was planned and executed with a discreet push from AUC.
“They basically wanted more grassroots people with dogs to talk about this issue, because it just made sense. It’s always suspect when someone is a professional political operative getting in front of the camera trying to pull emotional content out of anyone,” Ms. Hendrix said. “People are always a little more suspect of that.”
Dogs Against Romney does indeed have grassroots origins. Its ranks include many dog-loving volunteers and the group was started by Scott Crider, an Alabama-based digital marketer and social media strategist. Mr. Crider launched Dogs Against Romney in 2007 as a response to a Boston Globe profile which included the anecdote about Mr. Romney placing his Irish Setter, Seamus, in a carrier on top of the family car for a twelve hour road trip from Boston to his vacation home in Canada. Although it began as a simple website hosted on a free blog-publishing service, today the group has a rapidly expanding Facebook page with over 29,000 fans and a store selling everything from official t-shirts to bumper stickers and clothing made for dogs.
AUC, on the other hand, is hardly a grassroots operation. Its Executive Director Tom McMahon was previously the Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee, and its Deputy Executive Director Caren Benjamin was an aide to Nancy Pelosi during her time as Speaker of the House. FactCheck.org describes AUC as a “liberal group whose message closely mirrors that of the Obama White House.” According to its website, AUC aims to use “aggressive earned and paid media outreach, grassroots and online organizing” to “build broad public and congressional support for policies that move America in a new, better direction.”
AUC Deputy Communications Director Lauren Weiner distributed the press release announcing this week’s Westminster protest. Before the statement was sent out, The Politicker received an unsolicited e-mail from Ms. Weiner asking whether Mr. Romney would be in New York on the day of the planned protest.
“We’re working the Dogs Against Romney folks for a small protest tomorrow outside the Westminster Dog Show to draw attention to Romney’s treatment of his dog,” she wrote.
Members of Dogs Against Romney said AUC encouraged them to hold the Westminster protest and aided with media outreach. Kitty Hendrix, a spokeswoman for Dogs Against Romney, said AUC “was definitely interested in us having a little demonstration.”
“They knew this organization existed and it could be a powerful organization,” Ms. Hendrix said. “They got the ball rolling and, certainly, the press probably paid a little more attention, but this is very much an organic organization that was created by dog lovers who felt it was important for people to understand what kind of man Mitt Romney is.”
AUC’s media efforts on behalf of the protest were an unqualified success as more reporters attended the event than protesters.
In an email last night, Ms. Weiner said AUC believed it was important to work with Dogs Against Romney because “bringing up this issue is exemplary of Romney’s character.” She added Mr. Romney is “having a hard time relating to others, including animals, and this is a perfect example of that.”
As a 501(c)(4) organization, AUC plays a similar role to the super PACs that have been the subject of intense debate during this presidential race. Like super PACs, these so-called “stealth PACs” are allowed to accept donations of unlimited size and apply that money to political campaigns, as long influencing the outcomes of elections is not their primary purpose. However, unlike super PACs, 501(c)(4)s don’t disclose any information about their donors and are regulated by the I.R.S. rather than the Federal Election Commission. Critics argue the I.R.S. is doing a poor job monitoring stealth PACs.
Along with help from AUC, Dogs Against Romney has received social media support from several top-level members of the DNC who directly promoted the group and its message on Twitter this week. On Monday, DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse and DNC Political Director Jeffrey Lerner both tweeted links to the group’s website. On Tuesday, DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard sent a tweet to one of President Obama’s closest advisers, David Axelrod, calling the New York Knicks’ recent winning streak the “greatest joy ride since Romney’s dog on hood.” Mr. Axelrod sent his own memorable tweet about the canine controversy last month.
“If you agree that dogs should not be treated like luggage, tweet @MittRomney a picture of your dog w/ #thisisnotluggage,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz wrote in one of her flurry of anti-Romney, Seamus-related postings.
A top Democratic strategist told The Politicker the story about Mr. Romney’s dog is catnip to high-level Democrats and political consultants because they view it as the type of “moment” that can define forever a political candidate for the general public in a high profile campaign.
“People tend to talk about those campaigns afterwards, they remember moments. There’s always moments. There’s a moment when John McCain said that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. There’s a moment where Sarah Palin winks,” the strategist said. “This is the kind of stuff that sears into their memories that they don’t forget, that they will be talking about for years and years from now, whatever happens in the primary and whatever happens in the general. There’s just these moments of clarity where people really size up, and it speaks to something bigger, speaks to who they are.”
A staffer who worked on President Obama’s 2008 election effort confirmed the campaign was instantly attracted to the Seamus story when it first came out.
“When I first heard this story in 2007,” the staffer said. “It just jumped off the page. Because, to me, that constitutes animal abuse. It’s animal cruelty.”
This time around, according to Politico, “Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background.” This will be a two front war focused on characterizing Romney as “weird” using “awkward public encounters and famous off-kilter anecdotes, first among them the tale of Romney having strapped his dog to the roof of his car” and painting him as “the very picture of greed in the great recession — a sort of political Gordon Gekko.”
AUC has played a key role in both aspects of President Obama’s strategic assault on Mr. Romney. Prior to teaming with Dogs Against Romney, AUC launched a “Romney-Gekko 2012 campaign” portraying Mr. Romney as a greedy corporate executive through a series of websites, TV ads and protests.
And Democrats aren’t the only ones hoping to score points off the canine conundrum. Mr. Romney’s Republican rival Newt Gingrich previously created a website called “Pets With Newt,” highlighting his love of animals as a conspicuous response to Mr. Romney’s doggie dilemma.
As Mr. Romney’s enemies continue to capitalize on the tale of Seamus’ rooftop road trip, the story continues to evolve. The candidate has repeatedly insisted his dog enjoyed traveling on top of the car and his wife Ann said Seamus survived the voyage and went on to live to a “ripe old age.” However, last month, The Politicker reported two of Mr. Romney’s sons had an off-record conversation with reporters where they revealed the dog ran away when they reached their destination on that fateful journey. Mr. Romney and his campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on that story.
Clearly, there’s still a lot of fight left in this dog.