Bernie Sanders’ campaign went to war with the Democratic Party on Friday.
The party’s presidential campaign, previously a calm footnote to the Republican free-for-all, suddenly erupted into a battle full of finger-pointing and accusations of sabotage as the Democratic National Committee said that a Sanders aide had improperly accessed information about rival Hillary Clinton in a party database. It then temporarily froze out Sanders’ campaign from using the crucial vote database.
Aides to the independent Vermont senator said a computer glitch that led to the data breach was the fault of incompetence elsewhere and that cutting off data just weeks before voting started was a deliberate over-reaction to hurt Sanders.
“The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager.
The Sanders campaign then filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia late Friday against the party, charging a breach of contract.
Clinton’s campaign joined the fray later Friday as campaign manager Robby Mook said “our data was stolen.” The information, he told reporters, “took millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours to build.” He called it the campaign’s “strategic road map.”
The dispute on the eve of Saturday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire escalated a tense feud between Sanders’ insurgent army and a Democratic establishment often accused of stacking the deck to help Clinton.
The blowup started with a lapse by NGP VAN, a technology company that provides database services to Democrats. The lapse allowed Sanders campaign staffers to briefly access information from Clinton’s campaign. The Sanders campaign fired Josh Uretsky, a staff member involved in gaining access, but said the vendor was responsible for the problems.
“Clearly, in this case, they are trying to help the Clinton campaign,” Weaver said of the party.
Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary, said the campaign was asking the DNC and the Sanders team to “work expeditiously to ensure that our data is not in the Sanders campaign’s account and that the Sanders campaign only have access to their own data.”
In the meantime, tempers are flaring, anger that’s been building for months.
Exhibit A has been debates.
The Democratic National Committee scdeduled fewer debates than the Republicans, and slotted two of them this year for Saturday nights, when viewership is lower. This year’s last debate will take place at 8 p.m. EST Saturday on ABC. Also, the first debate of 2016 is scheduled for Sunday during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, a day when the National Football League has scheduled its widely watched playoff games.
Rivals said lower viewership would help Clinton, who entered the race with universal name recognition and a lead in the polls.
The newest episode allows Sanders’ campaign access to proprietary data compiled by Clinton’s team and accidentally left open through the DNC.
Clinton has 55.9 percent to Sanders’ 30.7 percent in the latest national RealClearPolitics average of national Democratic polls.
While the suspension of access to the entire DNC database could hurt Sanders, the freeze also could have the ironic effect of energizing his liberal base.
“What the DNC should clearly understand is they are playing a very dangerous game. Their cynical effort to stack this process could well turn off millions of voters who they will need to win an election next November,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive at National Nurses United, a group that supports Sanders.
“Taking away the voter file six weeks before Iowa over a vendor mistake isn't just poor decision making – in the data-driven world of presidential campaigns, this move by the DNC amounts to political malpractice,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a liberal group that endorsed Sanders this week.
His group circulated a petition Friday calling on the DNC to restore Sanders’ access to the file, and claimed tens of thousands of signatures within an hour and a half.
Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, is the favorite of groups fed up with Democratic politics as usual, and he has never been entirely comfortable with the party. He’s been an independent throughout his 25-year congressional career, though he has filed to run for president as a Democrat, explaining that trying to win as a third-party candidate would be more difficult.
Weaver branded the DNC as aiming to “hold our data hostage and continues to try to attack the heart and soul of our campaign.”
“This is not the first time that the vendor hired by the DNC to run the voter file program, NGP VAN, has allowed serious failures to occur,” he said. “That is dangerous incompetence.”
In a statement, Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN chief executive officer, said it was “confident at this point that no campaigns have access to or have retained any voter file data of any other clients; with one possible exception, one of the presidential campaigns. NGP VAN is providing a thorough report to the DNC on what happened and conducting a review to ensure the integrity of the system.”
It added “NGP VAN played no role” in making the DNC decision to bar the Sanders campaign.
Trevelyan called the bug “a brief isolated issue, and we are not aware of any previous reports of such data being inappropriately available.”
DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida described the incident as an unfortunate mishap, calling it an “incident (that) briefly allowed users on the NGP VAN system to inadvertently access some data belonging to other campaigns.”
Uretsky, the fired staffer, told MSNBC he had to assume Sanders’ data was also exposed, so “we wanted to document and understand the scope of the problem so that we could report it accurately.”
Asked about Clinton’s data, he said the Sanders team was not trying to disguise its action. The analogy, Uretsky said, was that “somebody leaves the front door open for the fifth time. You know, this was not the first time – this wasn't the first time that VAN made a mistake like this. But somebody leaves the front door open and you left a note inside the front door saying you left the door open.
“And then maybe you went and checked the side door, too, to make sure that door was closed.”