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Michelle Nunn and the perils of leaked campaign memos

In an embarrassing leak, a 2013 memo outlining Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn’s game plan for winning her Georgia race was made public on Monday.
Michelle Nunn
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Michelle Nunn speaks to her supporters after her primary win was announced at an election-night watch party on May 20, 2014, in Atlanta.

In an embarrassing leak, a detailed memo outlining Georgia Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn’s game plan for winning her election surfaced Monday.

National Review reporter Eliana Johnson posted the document, which she wrote came from sources who noticed it was accessible online in December, apparently by accident.

Most of the sections in the 144-page document are unremarkable, if annoying, for a campaign to see aired outside its offices -- such as the Nunn campaign’s strategies for courting LGBT donors or for winning over gun owners.

But the most passed-around parts concerned what the campaign believed were Nunn’s vulnerabilities heading into the election. Once again, many of them were so obvious for a Democrat running in Georgia they barely needed to be written down – the campaign anticipated attacks that Nunn was “too liberal,” “a rubber stamp for Democrats,” and “not a ‘real’ Georgian.”

Others, however, were more specific to Nunn. The campaign memo noted a number of potential vulnerabilities tied to her work leading former President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, Nunn's most high-profile job before entering politics. They include “layoffs,” “liens” and “service awards to inmates, terrorists.” 

That last part refers to a grant reportedly given to Islamic Relief USA, which lists itself as an independent affiliate of another charity called Islamic Relief Worldwide that Israel has banned over what they allege are ties to terror group Hamas.

Nunn’s campaign told The Atlanta Journal Constitution Monday that Points Of Light never gave money to the group and that they only listed Islamic Relief USA as a potential target for other donors.

“This was a draft of a document that was written eight months ago,” Jeff DiSantis, campaign manager for Nunn, told the newspaper. "Like all good plans, they change. But what hasn’t changed and is all the more clear today is that Michelle’s opponents are going to mischaracterize her work and her positions, and part of what we’ve always done is to prepare for the false things that are going to be said."

The leak would be an infuriating situation for any campaign. By preparing themselves for what they consider a threatening piece of opposition research, Nunn's campaign ended up putting the very same piece of research into the Georgia press before prominent Republicans had even raised the issue. 

This isn’t the first time a document discussing a candidate’s weak points has become public. Any smart candidate will take stock of their weaknesses before a campaign. Some even hire private investigators to dig into their own background before running.

The 2008 presidential campaign, in particular, included a flurry of damaging internal campaign documents that eventually became public.

In January 2007, then-New York Daily News reporter Ben Smith obtained Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani’s 140-page campaign plan, which included warnings that his messy divorce and ties to a top aide, Bernard Kerik, who was indicted, would create problems.

The very next month, The Boston Globe got its hands on an apparent memo from Mitt Romney’s campaign that identified many of the attacks that voters would hear about him over the next five years. Among them, that Romney was a “rapacious Republican businessman,” a “phony” and a “political opportunist.”

On the Democratic side, The New York Times reported in May 2013 on an internal Hillary Clinton campaign memo urging her to skip the Iowa caucuses, which a top aide warned “may bankrupt the campaign and provide little if any political advantage.”

Iowa takes its early role in presidential elections very seriously, so airing that the campaign even considered ditching the caucuses was a serious slip-up. True to the campaign's warnings, Clinton came in third place in the state, and the loss set Barack Obama up for his meteoric rise to the White House. 

Shortly after Clinton's campaign ended, The Atlantic published a strategy memo from the Clinton campaign by adviser Mark Penn suggesting that that they attack Obama’s “lack of American roots.” While not focused on Clinton’s own vulnerabilities, the timing was embarrassing -- it came just as she and other Democratic leaders were preparing to unite their warring factions ahead of the general election.

The moral of the story? When it comes to campaign documents, the shredder is your friend and the cloud is your enemy.