WASHINGTON >> South Florida has long been a laboratory for some of the nation’s roughest politics, with techniques like phantom candidates created by political rivals to siphon off votes from their opponents, or so-called boleteras hired to illegally fill out stacks of absentee ballots on behalf of elderly or disabled voters.
But there was never anything quite like the 2016 election campaign, when a handful of Democratic House candidates became targets of a Russian influence operation that made thousands of pages of documents stolen by hackers from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington available to Florida reporters and bloggers.
“It was like I was standing out there naked,” said Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who lost her primary race after secret campaign documents were made public. “I just can’t describe it any other way. Our entire internal strategy plan was made public, and suddenly all this material was out there and could be used against me.”
The impact of the information released by the hackers on candidates like Taddeo in Florida and others in nearly a dozen House races around the country was largely lost in the focus on the hacking attacks against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But this untold story underscores the effect the Russian operation had on the American electoral system.
“This is not a traditional tit-for-tat on a partisan political campaign, where one side hits the other and then you respond,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the DCCC. “This is an attack by a foreign actor that had the intent to disrupt our election, and we were the victims of it.”
Why the Russian government might care about these unglamorous House races is a source of bafflement for some of the lawmakers who were targeted. But if the goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin was to make American democracy a less attractive model to his own citizens and to Russia’s neighbors, then entangling congressional races in accusations of leaks and subterfuge was a step in the right direction.
The intrusions in House races in states including Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina can be traced to tens of thousands of pages of documents taken from the DCCC, which shares a Capitol Hill office building with the Democratic National Committee.
The document dump’s effectiveness was due in part to a de facto alliance that formed between the Russian hackers and political bloggers and newspapers across the United States. The hackers, working under the made-up name Guccifer 2.0, used social media tools to invite individual reporters to request specific caches of documents, handing them out the way political operatives distribute scoops. It was an arrangement that proved irresistible to many news outlets — and amplified the consequences of the cyberattack.