Smack dab in the middle of this jolly holiday season, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus set political tongues wagging when he told radio bomb-thrower Hugh Hewitt that the party’s oppo-research machine is already combing through the metaphorical trash of a certain blond Democratic presidential possible. (Hint: It’s not Elizabeth Warren.)

Faster than you can say “Hillaryland,” Priebus’s words were tweeted, blogged, and otherwise splashed about as though the man had just admitted to sacrificing live chickens in the basement of Karl Rove’s house.

The more appropriate response would have been, “Well, duh!”

Of course Republicans are hard at work prepping for 2016. They’d be nuts not to be. “It’s standard operating procedure in this media environment,” observes Kevin Madden, a former campaign spokesman for Mitt Romney. “The only real surprise would be if research work wasn’t being done.”

One of the big lessons the GOP took from its epic 2012 fail: Define your opponent early and often and—most important—before he (or she) manages to define you. “There were certainly lessons learned from the 2012 campaign,” says Tim Miller, who toiled as RNC spokesman during the cycle. “The Obama campaign did a really good job starting early in building up infrastructure both for its ground campaign and from a data standpoint—both of which have been covered ad nauseam—but also from an opposition research standpoint in defining Mitt Romney.” Not that Team Obama labored alone, says Miller, noting that the campaign was richly aided in its mudslinging by the Democratic National Committee and by the fledgling oppo-research outfit American Bridge 21st Century.

Republicans have no intention of getting out-slung again. In March, Miller, along with ex-Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades and ex-RNC political director Joe Pounder, joined forces to give their team an oppo-research firm of its own, America Rising. The group’s aim, explains executive director Miller, is to create a research infrastructure that can be applied to any race. Of the 30 or so current staffers (with more to come!), some are hard at work on midterm races, such as the effort to unseat Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR). Researchers also are keeping tabs on Democratic rising stars, including Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and the Castro brothers. “We’re cataloging all the video of them and all of their quotes now,” says Miller, “so we don’t get caught unprepared like we did with President Obama—someone who rose very quickly.”

But who are we kidding? The scream-inducing specter haunting Republican dreams is President Hillary Rodham Clinton. It may be absurdly early in the election cycle. The first-lady-turned-senator-turned-secretary-of-state may ultimately decide not to run. But until further notice, Clinton is the 800-pound badass silverback whom Republicans are dead set on keeping out of the Oval Office at all costs. So it is never too early to start stripping the shine off her star.

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