Candidates have few secrets from campaign 'trackers'

A tracker at work
DFL operative Kyle Potter at work. Potter is a "tracker," filming speeches by Republican candidates.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

At any campaign rally, you expect mostly to find tried and true party loyalists. Take a recent rally in Woodbury for Republican Senate candidate Mark Kennedy.

The crowd cheered Kennedy's tough on terror talk and recitation of conservative credentials. One young man did not. He's just out of college, looking intense and alone in the crowd. Kyle Potter is a Democrat who enters the belly of the opposing campaign to videotape every speech, every event. Potter is a campaign tracker who's logged thousands of miles following Mark Kennedy's campaign.

"When you're at an event with 10 other Republicans and they all know who you are and they don't want you there, it could be one of the worst jobs you could have in politics," says Potter, whose his relationship with the candidate is awkward.

Ryan the 'reality checker'
Ryan Flynn, who tracks Amy Klobuchar, says he doesn't consider himself a spy but more a reality-checker.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"It's like I'm trying to date his daughter, essentially, because he'll be cordial but it's very obvious that he doesn't want me there," he says.

While Potter tracks Mark Kennedy, his polar opposite, young Republican Ryan Flynn, tracks Democrat Amy Klobuchar's race for the Senate. These campaign trackers have one mission: look for inconsistencies in opponents' speeches, a political misstep, or a gaffe of some sort.

Ryan Flynn says folks were puzzled by his job "until a little-known senator by the name of George Allen cropped up in many people's minds."

George Allen is the incumbent senator from Virginia. His re-election seemed assured and many considered him a potential Republican candidate for president in '08. But things started falling apart for Allen earlier this year when he singled out the tracker who worked for his opponent and made a comment while the videotape was running.

"So welcome, let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," Allen said.

"Macaca" was the word he used in referring to the tracker, who is a 20-year-old American with ancestry in India. Allen's critics jumped on the comments saying "Macaca" is a racial insult. Allen says he made the word up, but apologized anyway. The issue dominated news coverage and a race that many thought would be an easy win for Allen is now neck-and-neck.

This helps voters in the sense that they get to see a different view of the candidates. One that is not always polished and controlled ...

Flynn, who tracks Amy Klobuchar, says he doesn't consider himself a spy but more a reality-checker.

"I think this helps voters in the sense that they get to see a different view of the candidates. One that is not always polished and controlled within their campaign," Flynn says.

His biggest catch, he says, was recording Klobuchar when she mixed up the former homeland security director with the former FEMA director who was blamed for mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. Flynn posted that video on YouTube just hours after the event.

For the most part, Flynn and Potter say the candidates are mostly on message and rarely stray from their talking points. Flynn can basically recite what Klobuchar is going to say after taping her dozens of times.

"She'll tell you that she believes in standing up for people 'without fear or favor,'" he says, shortly before Klobuchar says, "In my job as prosecutor in Minnesota's biggest county, I've learned to do my job without fear or favor."

Flynn says Klobuchar will also talk about the time when she was debating Sheryl Ramstad and Ramstad called her a 'street fighter from the Iron Range,'"

"And I said 'thank you,'" Klobuchar says later. "I said 'thank you' because if we're going to win this race, we're going to need a street fighter from the Iron Range."

The candidates do keep on their toes when they know they are being tracked. During a union rally along the Iron Range, a boisterous speaker encouraged Amy Klobuchar to swear in her speech to fire up the union faithful. Flynn says Klobuchar simply pointed to him and didn't stray from her careful tone.

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