Both parties face high stakes this November—Democrats hope to take back the House and the Senate, whereas Republicans are clinging to their majority as a wave of GOP lawmakers choose not to run for reelection. The committees’ senatorial counterparts, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senate Committee, did not return requests for comment.
The DCCC is “committed” to ensuring that “illegally stolen and hacked materials are not weaponized in any campaigns,” its communications director, Meredith Kelly, said. A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee—who requested anonymity to discuss the committee’s policies—was more circumspect, saying that the committee is “open to working with anyone to tackle cybersecurity issues.” Democrats are irked that the NRCC hasn’t responded to their written requests for cooperation, a decision the NRCC spokesman attributed to a lack of “trust.”
The divide has further complicated the parties’ ability to offer a unified response that could discourage future election attacks. “The antidote to future election hackings is unity, unity of Democrats and Republicans banding together to say we won’t weaponize what others stole,” Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell said. “If we take away a big stage for hackers to showcase their work, they’ll hack less. The GOP’s refusal to sign this agreement invites more attacks on our democracy. It’s time to unite.”
It is not clear how the NRCC would react if it were given a damning email or text hacked from an opponent. Setting aside the potential legal liabilities, using hacked documents in a campaign could encourage cybercriminals to continue meddling in U.S. elections. There is also never a guarantee that the stolen documents are authentic. Asked whether the NRCC is formulating policies or guidelines for its candidates surrounding the use of hacked material in campaigns, the spokesman said he “can’t comment on a hypothetical scenario.”
The NRCC, however, is already working to encourage its own candidates to protect themselves against attacks. At least one Republican official, former Republican National Convention deputy finance chair Elliott Broidy, says he was targeted by foreign hackers this year. Russian hackers gained “limited” access to RNC computer systems in 2016, former FBI Director James Comey testified last year. The spokesman reiterated that he “can’t detail our conversations with campaigns, but I will say that hacking and cybersecurity is something we’ve discussed at length with them.” He said later that Steve Stivers, the NRCC chairman, “is open to working with anyone to tackle cybersecurity issues.” A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan declined to comment on the record.
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University and a Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow, said the committee might be reluctant to issue a blanket statement objecting to the use of hacked material because it is often difficult to differentiate between material that has been leaked and material that has been hacked. “So if they make some kind of announcement, and then use something that they thought was leaked but was actually hacked, they’ll look like hypocrites,” Watts said. Still, he argued, “there should be a policy.”