Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Democratic campaigns are secretly shopping dirt on their primary rivals much earlier than usual, reflecting the high stakes of surging or sinking quickly with so many people running so early. 

The meltdown in Virginia politics is also infecting the race — and fueling media investigations of the candidates — with a reminder that, as one top operative put it: "Everything old is new again."

Opposition research — "oppo," as the campaigns call it — usually flies later in the campaign season.

  • One reason this underground game has begun so quickly is that most of the announced Democratic candidates serve in the Senate together. So the open attacks may come later.
  • That leaves an opening for the campaign staffs to quietly stir mischief in the media about the records, foibles and biographies of their opponents.
  • Many rival aides worked together in the past. But as one top campaign official told me: "If my friends have bad days and I have bad days, it's part of the game. ... Pretty much everyone is going to have a time in the barrel."

Republicans had four years to get ready to run again Hillary Clinton. But this year, no one knows who might eventually emerge as the Democratic nominee.

  • So the GOP is taking an equal-opportunity approach, and hitting just about any other candidates when ammo turns up.

America Rising Corp., the GOP oppo factory that works with the Republican National Committee and President Trump's super PAC, has already deployed cameras in early states to track Democratic candidates' appearances.

  • Now on America Rising's homepage: "AUDIO: Kirsten Gillibrand: Eliminating Private Insurance Is An Urgent Goal"; "VIDEO: Warren Won’t Admit That She Would Eliminate Private Insurance"; "Booker Dodges" in radio interview.
  • "These are the most unknown 'known' candidates," said Joe Pounder, CEO of America Rising Corp. "They're all fair game — no one gets a free pass."

Another dynamic inflicting pain on the infant campaigns is the aggressive, competitive news environment.

  • An operative for one 2020 contender told me: "Out of the gate, the media has made these candidates eat their records in a way that has been different."
  • The Washington Post reported that "an open records request during a general inquiry" had surfaced the Texas document on which Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote her race as "American Indian."
  • And lots of digging went into back-to-back stories this week documenting longtime Senate talk of tyrannical treatment of her staff by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — who announces her 2020 plans at a rally today.

Go deeper:

Subscribe to Axios AM/PM for a daily rundown of what's new and why it matters, directly from Mike Allen.
Please enter a valid email.
Please enter a valid email.
Server error. Please try a different email.
Subscribed! Look for Axios AM and PM in your inbox tomorrow or read the latest Axios AM now.

Go deeper

Media prepares to fact check debates in real time

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

From live blogs to video chyrons and tweets, media companies are introducing new ways to fact check the presidential debates in real time this year.

Between the lines: The debates themselves are likely to leave less room for live fact-checking from moderators than a traditional news interview would.

Life after Roe v. Wade

The future seems clear to both parties: The Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade in the next few years, either gradually or in one fell swoop, and the abortion wars will move to a state-by-state battle over freedom and restrictions. 

What's new: Two of the leading activists on opposite sides of the abortion debate outlined for “Axios on HBO” the next frontiers in a post-Roe v. Wade world as the balance on the Supreme Court prepares to shift.

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
43 mins ago - Economy & Business

Jerome Powell, Trump's re-election MVP

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Getty Images photos: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP and Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket

President Trump trails Joe Biden in most polls, has generally lower approval ratings and is behind in trust on most issues. Yet polls consistently give him an edge on the economy, which remains a top priority among voters.

Why it matters: If Trump wins re-election, it will largely be because Americans see him as the force rallying a still-strong U.S. economy, a narrative girded by skyrocketing stock prices and consistently climbing U.S. home values — but the man behind booming U.S. asset prices is really Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell.