Much-Vaunted Tech Issues Struggle to Break Through in Midterms

Democrats vowed to make net neutrality and privacy key issues, while some Republicans hoped accusing tech platforms of bias would rally their base. Neither effort seems to be panning out.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before an April 11 House Energy and Commerce hearing about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy.
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Oct. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

With only four weeks to go until the midterm elections, both Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to make hay while the sun is shining. But tech issues, until recently considered fertile ground for harvesting votes, are being largely ignored and forgotten in the homestretch.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way—particularly for Democrats, who for months had promised to make the GOP pay for rolling back the Federal Communications Commission’s popular rules on net neutrality and data privacy.

Back in May, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz spoke for many of his colleagues when he described net neutrality as “electoral dynamite” for his party. But today, election analysts say they’ve seen almost nothing to indicate that Democratic candidates are running on the issue.

Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, has combed through a mountain of campaign advertisements this electoral cycle. But he could only point to one Democratic congressional candidate, Mel Hall of Indiana’s 2nd district, who he’s seen run a tech ad. And that had little to do with net neutrality, instead slamming Republican incumbent Jackie Walorski for backing the FCC repeal of rules designed to safeguard consumers from snooping internet service providers.

“I’d say [the Hall ad] is the exception rather than the rule,” Gonzales told National Journal, noting that he’s seen little to indicate a broader national focus on net neutrality or privacy by Democrats.

The same is true of Republicans, many of whom have sought to stir up their base by highlighting allegations of pervasive anti-conservative bias at Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

Over the past year, some in the GOP have aimed to portray the country’s top tech firms as hotbeds of liberalism, where programmers work to deploy algorithms that bury conservative opinions and the individual accounts of those who peddle them. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried this summer to kick start a #StopTheBias social-media campaign, with both Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and Brad Parscale, President Trump’s digital strategist during the 2016 campaign, joining in the effort.

But analysts simply aren’t seeing a broader Republican campaign around social-media bias materializing. “I just went through a week’s worth [of TV ads] from a couple of weeks ago and I don’t think I saw anything on this,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This also hasn’t otherwise stood out to me in GOP or Democratic messaging.”

It’s not just outside observers—even some of the GOP’s tech-policy stalwarts are skeptical.

“There are a lot of other issues that will play out before that one,” said Greg Walden, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I’ve run a lot of campaigns and been around them. I don’t think that’s the Number 1 issue you’re going to see people running on.”

John Thune, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, believes the accusations of “shadowbanning” or other efforts by tech companies against conservatives may be overblown.

“I’d like to think those [examples] are mainly more the exception than the rule,” he told National Journal on Thursday. “And I don’t see now, nor have I seen, anything to suggest that that is going to have any sort of adverse impact on the midterm elections.”

The same goes for net neutrality, which Thune brushed off as a potential electoral headache for Republicans. “I know at one time the Democrats really thought that this was going to be an issue they can run on,” he said. “But I don’t see any campaign talking about it, and I just don’t see any evidence that they’re getting much traction out of it.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley Democrat and one of the House’s most influential voices on tech, largely agrees with Thune about net neutrality’s limited impact next month. “I think it is an issue,” Khanna said. “It’s perhaps not the salient issue, given that some of the very core rights and values of the country are at stake.”

Khanna said a series of scandals and “outrageous” actions from the Trump White House have set net neutrality and other progressive tech priorities on the back burner for Democratic voters. But he, too, scoffed at the idea that Republicans would successfully capitalize on their own charges of tech bias at the ballot box.

“They’re trying to lump new media in with The New York Times and The Washington Post and traditional media,” said Khanna. “This is their attack on ‘fake news’ and their attack on any platform that has facts and that is based on information. And it’s to rile up their base.”

McCarthy—who’s expected to run for Speaker if Republicans keep control of the House—still isn’t letting up, telling National Journal ahead of the House recess that he continues to hear complaints on tech bias from voters across the political spectrum. And activists on both sides insist that candidates and political analysts won’t have the final say on whether tech priorities drive voters to the polls in November.

“This issue [of tech-platform bias] is not being driven solely by politicians—frankly, it’s not even being driven mostly by politicians,” said Dan Gainor, the vice president of business and culture at the conservative Media Research Center. “It’s being driven mostly by the conservative base.”

Gainor argues that a steady drumbeat of stories—he pointed to recent reports that Facebook employees are furious over one executive’s open support of Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing—have sparked outrage among the conservative rank-and-file. That, in turn, could have an impact on competitive races in Texas and in other states with strong right-wing constituencies.

“This is definitely an issue that motivates voters,” Gainor said.

Evan Greer, the deputy director of the liberal tech group Fight for the Future, is similarly dismissive of the notion that net neutrality won’t drive progressives—and maybe even some moderates and Republicans—to the polls next month.

“We’re hearing from people all the time, ‘I want to know where my rep stands,’” said Greer. “That’s like the Number 1 thing we hear, is people looking for information about where their lawmaker stands on net neutrality.”

“I think [FCC Chairman] Ajit Pai is arguably going to be one of the GOP’s big liabilities going into the midterms,” Greer continued. “I think it’s sort of the quintessential example of corruption that angers people across the political spectrum. And I do think that will affect turnout, and I do think it will affect how people cast their votes.”

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