Will Net Neutrality Matter in the Midterms?

Democrats hope to use the FCC’s unpopular rollback as a cudgel against Republicans, but there’s little evidence so far that voters view net neutrality as a key campaign issue.

A protester holds a sign that reads "Resist the FCC Text: INTERNET To: 52886" at the Federal Communications Commission, in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. The FCC voted to eliminate net-neutrality protections for the internet. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Dec. 14, 2017, 8 p.m.

Thursday’s vote by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back its net-neutrality rules comes nearly eleven months before 2018’s midterm elections. But Democratic politicians and progressive activists are already hell-bent on ensuring that when voters head to the polls next November, they’ll remember this decision from President Trump’s FCC.

At a pro-net-neutrality rally in front of FCC headquarters on Thursday, Sen. Edward Markey vowed to “bring the issue into the 2018 congressional elections.” Rep. Ro Khanna, a rising Democratic star from California, told National Journal at the same rally that his party must make net neutrality a voting issue for middle-class Americans. “It’s going to be a campaign issue, and we’ll try to make it a big one,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

A poll released earlier this week by the University of Maryland showed that 83 percent of voters—and 75 percent of Republicans—opposed the FCC’s move to rescind rules prohibiting internet providers from blocking, slowing down, or prioritizing web traffic. That tracks closely with other polls taken in recent weeks and with the tremendous upswell of support for net neutrality visible on social media. After Thursday’s FCC vote, many Democrats see net neutrality as an obvious electoral wedge to drive between Republicans and voters from across the spectrum.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already taking preliminary steps to tie Republicans to the FCC’s decision, running digital ads for the base that one official says have “performed well.” But the real action is likely to come next year, when progressive lawmakers plan to push proposals forcing Republicans to go on record regarding the net-neutrality protections now dismantled by the commission.

“Getting Congress on the record is helpful in making this an electoral issue,” said Symone Sanders, the former press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and a speaker at Thursday’s net-neutrality protest. “I think this is going to be something that the Democratic members of Congress are going to be keen on when they come back in January.”

But while a few Republicans are already feeling the heat, it’s not clear that the Democrats’ push to weaponize net neutrality will be effective more broadly. On Thursday, Republicans announced an intent to promote their own net-neutrality legislation next year, potentially complicating Democratic plans. And in an election cycle already overcrowded with issues, one election expert cautions Democrats against overplaying their hand.

“Just because public sentiment is on one side of an issue according to the polls doesn’t mean that people are prioritizing that issue when they vote,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst and the editor of Inside Elections. “This is what’s gotten Democrats in trouble a lot.”

Despite all the noise from House members in noncompetitive districts and senators not immediately facing reelection, Gonzales has so far seen little evidence that the Democratic rank-and-file are prepared to run on net neutrality. “We’ve probably met with 30 to 40 Democratic House candidates this cycle,” he said. “I can’t remember one bringing up net neutrality.”

Still, many Democratic lawmakers feel buoyed by the response they’ve received from net-neutrality backers. “We’ve gotten more calls on this than we did on health care; we’ve gotten more emails about this,” Khanna said. “Every person under 40 cares about this issue.”

“I know in terms of policy, it is animating to say the least,” Rep. Anna Eshoo said Wednesday. “And there are members who have done different outreaches in their district and were stunned at the enormous response to it.”

Democrats plan to push legislation next year that they believe will keep up the net-neutrality pressure on vulnerable Republicans. In the Senate, Markey is set to take the lead on a bill that reverses the FCC’s decision through the application of the Congressional Review Act. Khanna tells National Journal that similar legislation, likely led by Eshoo, will soon be unveiled in the House. While almost certainly doomed to fail, both bills could keep net-neutrality in the news and force GOP lawmakers to keep addressing the issue.

Republicans on Capitol Hill technically have little influence on the actions of the FCC, which operates as an independent agency, currently led by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai. But that distinction could be lost on voters—particularly if lawmakers like Eshoo keep beating the drum that the congressional GOP is complicit in the net-neutrality rollback. “If they wanted to, if half of their caucus wanted to weigh in with Chairman Pai, he would pay attention to that,” she said one day before the FCC’s vote. “So don’t say they can’t do anything.”

Most GOP lawmakers in both chambers have lined up behind Pai’s decision on neutrality. But in recent days, a handful have pushed back. Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado sent a letter to Pai just ahead of Thursday’s vote urging the chairman to delay the rollback. In a brief interview with National Journal on Wednesday, Coffman explained that his decision was driven by “a lot” of calls, emails, and letters from his constituents—particularly small-business owners.

“It’s district-by-district,” Coffman said, when asked whether he expected more Republicans to back net neutrality or pay a political price. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses in my district by virtue of sending the letter to the FCC.”

Other Republicans appear to recognize the danger. On the morning of the FCC vote, House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn announced a GOP net-neutrality bill to be introduced next week. While that bill—and other potential Republican efforts—may prove as quixotic as those on the Democratic side, they could still inoculate Republicans from voters worried that Capitol Hill isn’t taking the issue seriously.

But 11 months out, it’s far from certain that net neutrality will break through the clutter of an already chaotic election cycle. “[Democrats] want to talk about health care; they want to talk about taxes,” Gonzales said. “Now they want to talk about net neutrality. They want to talk about ethics and sexual misconduct. It’s tough for me to see a large number of races being decided on net neutrality.”

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