Cambridge Analytica Fallout Spreads to State Legislatures

The firm used improperly obtained Facebook data to help the GOP take back the Colorado Senate. Most of the lawmakers who might have benefited are remaining silent as Democrats call on the state to investigate.
by | March 30, 2018
(AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The political consulting firm at the heart of a scandal involving Facebook data didn't just use its legally questionable methods in an attempt to help Donald Trump win the presidency.

In 2014, it also may have helped Republicans capture control of the Colorado state Senate, assisted in the campaign for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and was involved in candidate Arthur B. Robinson's unsuccessful bid for an Oregon state Senate race.

The British company, Cambridge Analytica, has been embroiled in scandal since mid-March when a joint investigation by The New York Times and The Observer of London revealed that the company had improperly obtained Facebook data from 50 million people in order to help Republicans target political messages during campaigns. The firm was hired in 2016 by the Ted Cruz campaign and, later, by the Trump campaign.

News of the improperly obtained data -- and Cambridge Analytica’s unique method of using it to create "psychographic profiles" of target voters -- has sparked an outcry against Facebook, which is now facing an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for potentially violating privacy rules. A bipartisan group of 36 state attorneys general signed onto a letter demanding that Facebook turn over information on how it protects users' privacy.

Another potential legal pitfall is the possibility that foreign nationals at Cambridge Analytica made high-level campaign strategy decisions, which is against U.S. law. The Washington Post reported that the political consulting firm is mostly staffed by Canadians and Europeans.

The scandal raises questions about who campaigns at all levels of government are hiring to help them with data collection and messaging, says Matt Dallek, a political scientist at George Washington University.

“It was incumbent on the campaigns [that used Cambridge Analytica] to know who they were doing business with,” he says. “Campaigns often get into trouble when they don’t know who’s actually doing the work for them and when they don’t have solid faith and trust in who they hire.”

The Trump campaign, and the state campaigns that partnered with Cambridge Analytica in the 2014 election cycle, have faced questions over the last several weeks about how extensively they used Cambridge Analytica data.

The Trump campaign disputes the importance of Cambridge Analytica's contributions to the campaign. Alexander Nix, the firm's CEO, has said they didn't have time to create psychographic models specifically for Trump voters and leaned on what they had compiled for Cruz.

None of the Republicans who won their state legislative races with the aid of Cambrige Analytica that year responded to Governing’s requests for comment. Colorado Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, whose campaign was aided by Cambridge Analytica, told The Denver Post that she was not aware of the firm's work on her campaign.

"I don't know that it helped me," she told the Post.

In Colorado, the firm helped Republicans target five state Senate districts: 16, 19, 20, 22 and 24, according to The Washington Post. The GOP candidate won in three of those five races (16, 19 and 24), effectively flipping the Senate back to GOP control. Denver Channel 7 reported that the firm took more than $444,000 in payments from Colorado campaign organizations that year.

According to Channel 4 News in Britain, there is still a cache of campaign data floating around containing information about 136,000 Coloradans leftover from those races. Similar information exists for residents of Oregon, according to the news organization. The information was inappropriately mined from Facebook and contains data about individual users' likes, dislikes, interests and personality characteristics.

The firm’s work in Colorado started with then-Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, who ascended to Senate President when the party recaptured the majority in 2014.

According to Denver Channel 7, Cadman  -- who left office in 2017 -- provided the firm with seven districts he thought could use their help, and the firm eventually chose to focus on five. It's unclear whether Cadman sought out Cambridge Analytica or whether the firm approached him. With data and targeting help from the firm, Republican fundraising organizations in Colorado sent out targeted mailers and fliers. Republican party officials in the state initially said the firm was only behind six mailers, but documents obtained by The Washington Post show they could have been behind as many as 80.

Democratic state Sen. Andy Kerr, who narrowly won reelection against one of the Cambridge Analytica-backed candidates, specifically recalls the mailers the political consulting firm sent out.

“Now that I know which ads they sent out, I clearly remember those because they were very deceitful and beyond the scope of even normal negative advertising, saying that I supported gender-specific abortions” Kerr says. “Also, they were sending things out to a lot of people we knew were strong Democrats, and at least one of the mailers was pro-choice. We thought at the time their targeting was just off, but maybe with this new Facebook data, that’s exactly what they were trying to do.”

Judy Solano, who lost her race against Cambridge Analytica-backed Republican Beth Martinez Humenik, remembers being very surprised to lose her race.

“My race was supposed to be the safe race. They kept telling me, 'You’re fine Judy, don’t worry about it,'” Solano says. “It’s hard to tell [what effect Cambridge Analytica had] because that year was tough for a lot of people. But I wouldn’t be surprised [if it was meaningful].”

The Colorado GOP denied involvement.

"The state party has never had a contract with Cambridge Analytica. What has been reported is that a Senate Majority Fund [a fundraising arm of the Republican party] did," Daniel Cole, a spokesman for the Colorado GOP, told Governing.

The Colorado Democratic Party says it's calling on the state's Attorney General (a Republican) to investigate the campaign groups that contracted with the firm in 2014.

"We can't ignore all the groups in the Republican archipelago that were helped [by Cambridge Analytica]," says Eric Walker, a spokesman for the state's Democratic Party.