As Americans line up to vote on Tuesday, some of net neutrality’s most vocal defenders remain confident that the issue will be a determining factor in the 2018 midterm elections. Privately, however, some Democrats have expressed doubt that the battle over the ‘net is key to regaining control of Congress—even as polling consistently shows that most Americans favor reining in the control providers such as AT&T and Comcast have over the delivery of online services.
While as a standalone issue, net neutrality remains squarely a liability for GOP candidates, due to their party’s opposition to FCC open internet regulations, few Democrats have widely employed net neutrality as a top-line issue with voters. Instead, net neutrality has become an integral part of a broader strategy to paint the unified Republican government as submissive to wealthy corporate interests, said three congressional staff members whose bosses seek re-election on Tuesday. That narrative, Democrats hope, will paint impact voters with more traditional election day concerns; healthcare being foremost on the list with the fate of the Affordable Care Act and suggested cuts to Medicaid and Medicare hanging in the balance.
Using net neutrality as a sidecar issue to the Democrats’ main platform is not exactly how the party’s lawmakers characterized their warnings to Republicans earlier this year. While pushing through an effort to overturn the FCC’s decision to scrap federal net neutrality rules, for example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a February press conference that Democrats would make net neutrality a “major issue” in the 2018 election. But other lawmakers made clear then how they would work it into their messaging.
“When we take on the Senate floor, every one of my Republican colleagues will have to answer this question: Whose side are you on?” Senator Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, added at the press conference. “Do you stand with hard-working families for whom the internet is essential, or do you stand with the big money, corporate interests, and their army of lobbyists?”
An aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told Gizmodo he’d seen no polling on the issue, but added: “It’s certainly not what Dems are talking about.”
Multiple senior Democratic aides and advisers, granted anonymity to speak candidly before the election, confirmed to Gizmodo that the objective has been to harness the mistrust voters feel toward lawmakers who have aligned themselves with major internet and cable providers—consistently the most loathed of all U.S. companies—and redirect it toward a host of issues seen to hold more sway over 2018 voters.
Leading net neutrality advocates, meanwhile, maintain that net neutrality will play a key role in delivering first-time voters to the polls. Anecdotally at least, sitting Democrats have seen plenty of evidence to corroborate that theory, including waves of letters and calls from alarmed constituents who have never reached out in the past. “‘Don’t mess with my internet’ was sort of the impetus there,” averred one Democratic aide, saying the calls that poured in during the height of the net neutrality fight were “from people who had never touched government before.”
“The idea that net neutrality isn’t going to be a voting issue for people is 100 percent a Comcast talking point,” said Josh Tabish, a technology exchange fellow at Fight for the Future. “The telecos have sent their army of lobbyists through every congressional office they can, to every journalist they can, through every communications channel they can get their hands on—they’re trying to sell the idea that net neutrality isn’t going to be a factor. And that’s just ridiculous.”
Fight for the Future has been actively working to counter the narrative that net neutrality isn’t a big deal in 2018 through efforts like VoteforNetNeutrality.com, which highlights 23 races where net neutrality could be a deciding factor this year. And, indeed, Democratic lawmakers have not been entirely silent on the issue. For example, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi championed net neutrality in September following the California legislature’s vote to establish state-level open internet protections. And many spoke out on it earlier this year. But it has largely remained a second-tier talking point in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, which net neutrality activists view as a mistake.
In a sweep of more than 1,180 campaign websites, Gizmodo found only a handful of Republicans who had mentioned the issue online. One is Rep. Steve Knight, an incumbent in the hotly contested California 25th Congressional district, who wrote about his concern that the Trump administration’s rollback of net neutrality “may unintentionally compromise” innovation and competition. Out of 171 candidates in battleground districts, fewer than 10 percent have literature online about net neutrality, and Knight is the only Republican among them.
For moderate Republicans locked in competitive races, supporting net neutrality or, at the very least, shedding doubt on the decision to repeal it, is an easy way to score points with Democratic voters, Tabish says, arguing that the issue has galvanized more public discussion than just about any other topic in the last few years. “It’s right up there with the biggest, loudest issue,” he says. “And we expect to see a lot of people at the polls for whom this will be at the forefront.”
Republicans like Knight—as well as those who’ve simply avoided taking a stance publicly—are likely to have at taken note of polling throughout the year that shows that, not only do Republican voters support net neutrality, but independents and self-proclaimed undecideds do as well. An oft-cited poll from July showed that in Knight’s district, 64 percent of voters favored net neutrality. The same poll showed Knight in a dead tie with his opponent, challenger Katie Hill. The race remains tight.
A cursory review of the top 10 candidates invoking net neutrality online—Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard tops the list, followed closely by Pelosi—reveals only a single Republican candidate: Ron Bassilian, a graphic novelist who turned Republican after the 2016 election. He is trying (though not very well) to unseat Rep. Karen Bass in the California 37th. (Bassilian blogs under the name “Mr. Biggs,” which his campaign website explains is a Sex Pistols reference.)
Taking back the House presents an opportunity, however slight, for Democrats to restore net neutrality before regaining control of the White House and before the D.C. Circuit issues a ruling on the repeal sometime next year. Under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), the U.S. Senate voted in May to reinstate the net neutrality protections the Federal Communications Commission’s Republican majority voted to overturn in December. Now, a vote in the House is required before the 115th Congress adjourns next month. For Democrats, the hope is that defeated Republicans, no longer restrained by party leadership, will vote to save net neutrality before leaving office if only to appease the constituents who sent them packing.
“There is definitely a chance that they will feel emboldened to vote for the CRA as a piece of their legacy on their way out the door,” adds Tabish, “both out of respect for their constituents, and because if they have any intention of running again, this is going to leave a good taste in their voters’ mouths.”
Additional reporting by Ishaan Jhaveri