SOUTH BEND - Opposition research enables Congresswoman Jackie Walorski to portray challenger Mel Hall in a far different way than he was defining himself all summer with his TV spots about youth on a Hoosier farm, service as a minister and experience as a successful South Bend business executive.

“Oppo research,” as political consultants call it, is the search for something negative that can be used against an opponent, especially in the TV ads that seek to inflict a negative image.

The search for useful information about Hall found that he had for a time lived in Washington and was an advisor on health care there for a large global law firm that does lobbying for some clients.

Thus, in TV ads and debates, Walorski, the Republican incumbent in Indiana’s 2nd District, portrays the Democratic challenger as a lobbyist, a liar and a “Washington insider.”

As Hall was defining himself in a positive way with effective TV ads, some naïve Democrats thought that Walorski couldn’t counter with negative attacks because Hall, a newcomer to politics, had no legislative voting record or government credentials to attack. Nonsense, of course. Opposition research goes beyond voting records, often finding things in a candidate’s past that tarnish an image, fairly or unfairly.

If Walorski had just let Hall paint a positive image of himself and define her as unresponsive to voters and afraid to debate, she would have faced defeat, even though nine of the 10 counties of the district voted Republican in 2016.

Walorski agreed to two televised debate _ even a third that neither side now seems anxious to hold. Smart decision by Walorski. She showed she could and would debate. And she won the first debate.

The opposition research helped Walowski to take the offensive. Hall seemed taken aback by her claims that he had been a lobbyist, that he lived in a luxury condo at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington and that he had voted in Washington. There is no indication that he ever lobbied. But he did live in the condo, although he says it was for a short time, and he did vote in D.C, an indication that he regarded himself as a D.C. resident.

In the second debate, Walorski started strong. But she lost that one by the end by hammering away again and again and again, no matter the question, on a contention that there was something sinister about Hall being an advisor on health care matters at Dentons, the giant global law firm with something like 7,700 lawyers. She kept citing lobbying for a pharmaceutical firm accused of products harmful to pregnant women.

Hall, no registered lobbyist, didn’t lobby for the pharmaceutical firm or for any of the other clients for which Dentons has provided lobbying, from Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn., to the World Wildlife Fund.

Bringing up oppo research findings about Hall for a time recently living and voting in D.C. and still having a Ritz condo there was fair game to counter his farmer-minister image. Accusing him of involvement in harming pregnant women certainly was not.

Despite being taunted as a liar, Hall remained calm, answered debate questions and stayed on message, especially on health care, a key issue.

Hall wasn’t just passive, as he seemed too often to be in the first debate. He accused Walorski of constantly referring to her negative “talking points.” Hall also constantly cited his criticism that Walorski voted 11 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

The debates won’t decide the election. Nor will reaction either way to the opposition research. But it’s all part of defining candidate images. And image will be what it’s all about in the TV war going right up to Election Day. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.