WASHINGTON — Democrats are accusing Republicans of breaking down congressional comity even further by dispatching a "campaign tracker" — a young staffer sent to record a foe's every word, in hopes of catching a damaging gaffe — to stalk Democratic senators facing reelection while they're at work on Capitol Hill.
In the unwritten rules of Washington, it's perfectly fine to have a tracker follow a member of Congress around when he or she is outside or at an event away from the Capitol complex. But Hill veterans on both sides of the aisle say a tracker in congressional office buildings and members' offices is unprecedented, and Democrats suggest the presence of a tracker in the Capitol complex is an intimidation tactic.
A tracker from the new Republican opposition research firm America Rising was an unwelcome guest at Sen. Kay Hagan's weekly Carolina Coffee open office hours session Wednesday morning. The tracker, a young woman accompanied by a North Carolina native who signed into the event, was on hand with a video camera and asked a question about the Democratic senator's opinion on the budget proposal by North Carolina's Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
She wasn't described as rude or confrontational, but her mere presence broke a longstanding and unwritten congressional rule: no tracking in Congress.
"[It's] really over the top and beyond the traditional boundaries," said Sadie Weiner, Hagan's communications director. The Carolina Coffee session is a nonpartisan event, and Weiner said the presence of a political tracker "is disrespectful to the constituents who don't expect to be filmed and caught in political crossfire when they come to meet with their senator."
It's the second time in a week an America Rising tracker has rankled Democrats on Capitol Hill. A short, uneventful video of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu acknowledging a tracker in a Senate hallway put Democrats on edge and violated a tradition officials at both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said they respect during campaign season.
America Rising's leaders don't see what the big deal is.
"Our objective is to hold Democrats accountable for their rhetoric wherever they go, and that is especially important when Congress is in session," said Tim Miller, executive director at America Rising. "If Democratic senators like Kay Hagan didn't try to hide their liberal, Washington agenda from voters back home they wouldn't have anything to be concerned about."
Recording a member of Congress as she walks down a hallway in the Capitol and asking her questions in her office is not illegal. But for an institution theoretically built on bipartisan compromise in the years between the partisan battles on the campaign trail, keeping campaign tactics out of Congressional offices is important, Hill vets say.
"Every office can set its own rule [about recording devices in the office], but tracking in the office is a clear breach of accepted etiquette," said Nu Wexler, a former Democratic staffer in both the House and Senate. "Hallways are public spaces.
But if you had a research tracker follow a member around the Capitol, it would be frowned upon."
Tracking — the act of following a candidate around in the hope of catching him or her in a politically embarrassing moment — is a time-honored part of the campaign process that will certainly play a part in both sides of both Landrieu's and Hagan's reelection bids next year. Republican North Carolina legislator Tom Tillis, the marquee name among candidates vying to face Hagan in 2014, was followed around by Democratic trackers when he visited Washington earlier this month.
The tracking process is almost always controversial. In 2012, the DCCC came under fire after its trackers posted video of candidates' vacation homes. Democrats have accused Republican trackers of deliberately harassing them in the hopes of prompting career-ending moments captured on film.
American Bridge, the Democratic opposition research and tracking firm, says it reserves the right to follow around candidates at all their public appearances, but a spokesperson for the group says it doesn't do tracking work in the halls of Congress.
"We do not film people as they roam around the Capitol complex," Chris Harris, spokesperson for American Bridge, said.
Anecdotal evidence seems to back Harris up. Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas making noises about running for Senate next year, says he's got a Democratic tracker following him around wherever he goes — except when he's inside the Capitol complex. Cotton said he's never seen a tracker in his office or building.
Like any modern politician, Cotton has gotten used to being followed around with a video camera.
"I've had one for several months," Cotton says. "I'm flattered they are so interested in what I have to say, but I don't pay much attention to them."