When it comes to moving votes in American politics, technology concerns typically rank well behind issues such as health care, immigration, and the economy. But as the midterms creep closer, Democrats and their political allies think this year will prove an important exception.
They believe last year’s vote by the congressional GOP to roll back internet-privacy protections has left Republicans vulnerable in several key races—particularly out West, where Democrats say voters are increasingly placing a premium on electronic privacy.
Their lodestar is Arizona’s Senate race, where Rep. Martha McSally is the tentative favorite to replace Sen. Jeff Flake as the GOP’s standard-bearer. In March 2017, Flake introduced a successful resolution to roll back rules—approved by the Federal Communications Commission at the end of President Obama’s tenure—that blocked internet service providers from selling customers’ web-browsing history and other personal information to third-party advertisers without their express consent. The rules did not impact internet “edge providers” such as Google or Facebook, which remained free to do what they pleased with consumers’ data.
A poll commissioned by Democrats last summer and provided to National Journal showed 71 percent of Arizona voters expressing “major doubts” over Flake’s push to rescind the rules placed against ISPs. That number has Democrats eager to tie McSally to Flake’s resolution, which she supported in the House.
Coupled with the significant campaign contributions that McSally has received from telephone- and telecom-industry interests since first running for federal office in 2012, Democrats are confident they’ve hit on a winning issue with which to bludgeon McSally should she triumph in her party’s primary this summer.
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, over the course of her career, McSally has taken nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions from sources such as AT&T, Verizon, and Cox Communications, all of whom provide internet services. Federal Election Commission filings show that $37,000 of that amount came in the nine months after her vote to rescind the internet-privacy rules, with an additional $5,000 contributed by Comcast to a PAC affiliated with McSally.
“Congresswoman McSally joined establishment Washington Republicans to sell out Arizonans’ browsing history, making personal data including Social Security information available to the same special interests who are bankrolling her campaign,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It’s an example of how Congresswoman McSally is not putting Arizonans first and one that will certainly resonate with voters of all political persuasions this fall.”
Even before she committed to a Senate run in January, McSally felt compelled to respond to her voters’ concerns about internet privacy. “Preserving the privacy of my constituents is one of my top priorities,” she wrote in July, saying the FCC’s rescinded rule was “an example of federal agency overreach” and that the Federal Trade Commission would still protect consumers’ privacy should ISPs act inappropriately.
“The rule Congresswoman McSally voted to repeal was an Obama-era rule that did more harm than good in the virtual marketplace,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokeswoman for McSally’s Senate campaign. “It was government overregulation at its worst, discouraged innovation, and favored companies like Google and Facebook. This rule would have done nothing to protect Arizonans’ information from those companies, and companies like them.”
Democrats and aligned super PACs took Flake to task for his internet-privacy resolution almost immediately after it became law, putting together ads and even creating a geo-targeted Snapchat filter so attendees of a Flake town hall in Mesa, Arizona could accuse the senator of “[selling] out my online privacy.” Progressive tech group Fight for the Future ran billboards in Arizona accusing Flake of betraying his constituents with the vote.
But Drew Anderson, a senior communications advisor at the Arizona Democratic Party, said he and other Arizona Democrats were still shocked at the backlash that Flake faced over internet privacy. “Actually, it was almost on the level of Arizonans being upset with the Republican Party for trying to take away their health care,” he said, a nod to the central debate raging on Capitol Hill in April.
Anderson said Arizona’s libertarian streak means electronic-privacy issues resonate there in a way they may not elsewhere, and could attract disaffected moderates and Republicans to vote Democrat this cycle. Coupled with health care and education, he believes that privacy will be one of the three major issues on which Arizona’s Democrats run in 2018.
“When it comes to what the Democratic Party does on the ground with our voters, whether it’s engaging them door-to-door or through local community events or even online, we will make it an issue,” Anderson said.
Democrats say their burgeoning internet-privacy push in Arizona could be the beginning of a broader campaign. One Senate Democratic campaign aide told National Journal that the issue has particular resonance in Western states, singling out Nevada as another area where internet-privacy issues may be used against Republican candidates. GOP Sen. Dean Heller, who is facing a tough reelection bid this fall, was also targeted in Fight for the Future’s billboard campaign last year.
Chad Marlow is the advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which is reportedly planning to spend around $25 million on issue advocacy related to the midterms. He said the ACLU has communicated with “people in very high levels of politics” who are set on making internet privacy a major campaign issue.
“People in Washington, I would say they can read the tea leaves politically on this issue,” Marlow said, pointing to public polling numbers showing broad opposition to the privacy-rule rollback across the political spectrum.
Not everyone is convinced that internet privacy will move a significant set of votes this fall, even in America’s libertarian-leaning West. “I think this is an issue that probably tests well, but I’m not sure where it ranks as a priority for voters,” said Nathan Gonzales, a Washington-based elections analyst and the editor and publisher of Inside Elections.
Still, Gonzales said Democrats may be able to effectively wield the internet-privacy issue through surgical messaging and targeting online advertising. “This could be an issue that Democrats use strategically, even if it’s not the broad, overarching message for change,” he said.
And Marlow noted that when coupled with net neutrality—this cycle’s other hot-button tech issue—internet privacy could become an even more effective cudgel against the GOP this fall.
“If it had occurred in isolation, it would be hard to really use internet privacy as a major election issue,” said Marlow. “However, I think with what has happened with net neutrality, the ability to use net neutrality to elevate the internet privacy issue does set it up to be a one-two punch issue.”