Candidates push back at claims of Russian impact on elections

Former Rep. Joe Garcia during his acceptance speech after defeating Annette Taddeo in the Democratic primary for Florida's 26th congressional district.
Former Rep. Joe Garcia during his acceptance speech after defeating Annette Taddeo in the Democratic primary for Florida's 26th congressional district. el Nuevo Herald

Democratic candidates and operatives in Florida and North Carolina cast doubt Wednesday on a news report that the hacking of internal campaign documents allegedly by Russia influenced the outcomes of congressional races.

Randy Perkins, a business owner who lost Florida’s 18th Congressional District race to Republican challenger Brian Mast, openly scoffed at the report, attributing his defeat to the popularity of President-elect Donald Trump. A spokesman for another Florida candidate, Democrat Joe Garcia of Miami, said the pirating of documents from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had little effect on his campaign.

“There was a tremendous surge of newly registered Republicans,” Perkins told McClatchy. “Donald Trump tapped into anger and frustration in the country and this district. He carried the district and carried St. Lucie County, which is a Democratic stronghold.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that alleged Russian hacking of U.S. political campaigns had affected not just Hillary Clinton’s White House race, but several congressional campaigns. But there was little evidence for the accusation, the candidates said.

“My opponent was a very strong candidate,” Perkins said. “He’s a smart guy. He’s a war hero. He defended his country. He was a good candidate, and I got beat.”

Perkins added: “Would things have been different if Donald Trump wasn’t at the top of the ticket? Who knows.”

Perkins and Mast, a wounded veteran of the Afghanistan war, ran for the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for the Senate in the Nov. 8 general election.

The district includes Florida’s St. Lucie County, which President Barack Obama carried easily in 2012, but where voters preferred Trump to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by a 49.5 to 47.5 percent margin.

Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear are the names of two Russian hacking groups believed to have close ties to the Kremlin.

Whether Russian hackers attempted to meddle in the U.S. election has become a major controversy since the election, with the Obama administration blaming Russia for the hack of Democratic computer systems, including the email of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee. Last week, published reports said the CIA now believes that the Russians undertook the hacks in hopes of helping Trump win the presidency.

Then on Tuesday, the Times article expanded that theme, citing the publication by a blogger known as Guccifer 2.0 of internal documents from the computer system of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose initials, DCCC, are general pronounced “D Triple C.”

The Times cited the case of Democrat Annette Taddeo, who lost her primary contest against Garcia in August.

Taddeo told the Times that the DCCC leak had revealed an “internal strategy plan.” “It was like I was standing out there naked,” she said.

Juan Peñalosa, a Democratic strategist in Miami who helped run Garcia’s campaign, mocked Taddeo’s claims, noting that before running for Congress, Taddeo lost a race for Florida lieutenant governor and had previously sought other elected offices.

“You’d think that losing her fourth campaign in a row would be a little more humbling, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Peñalosa said.

Peñalosa also noted that the Guccifer 2.0 leak of DCCC documents also included research on Garcia – something the Times account failed to note.

My opponent was a very strong candidate. He’s a smart guy. He’s a war hero. He defended his country. He was a good candidate, and I got beat.

Randy Perkins, Florida Democratic U.S. House candidate

If anything, Peñalosa said, the alleged interference hurt Garcia more than Taddeo. He noted that a race Garcia was expected to win by a double-digit margin was in the end close, with Garcia winning by fewer than 3 points.

“I absolutely think the hacking impacted him negatively,” Peñalosa said.

Garcia lost in the general election to Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who did not figure in the DCCC leak.

Another indication that the DCCC leak likely had little impact on the outcome of the Taddeo-Garcia race was how little attention was paid to the documents from the race. The Miami Herald posted an item about the leak on its “Naked Politics” blog Aug. 15.

But the post was viewed by only 52 Miami voters on the day it was published and by fewer than 500 people in the days before the Aug. 30 primary. Garcia defeated Taddeo by 726 votes in the Democratic primary.

Taddeo did not respond to a request for comment.

Max Steele, communications director of the Florida Democratic Party, said he was alarmed by claims that Russia had meddled in the election. But he added that there was no evidence that the alleged meddling had changed any of the outcomes.

“When you have a foreign intelligence agency meddling in your election, I think that is disturbing on a number of levels,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t know if there’s any way to say beyond the shadow of a doubt that a race was thrown or decided by any sort of leak.”

The DCCC leaks involving the race of U.S. Rep. Alma Adams in North Carolina raised different issues in that state, where the leaks received little attention prior to the election.

Former state Sen. Malcolm Graham said the leaked documents revealed that the DCCC favored Adams over his unsuccessful primary bid to unseat her. “The playing field wasn’t level from the beginning,” Graham said. “They had a thumb on the scale.”

Adams defeated Graham in the Democratic primary and won election to a third House term in the November general election.

Adams’ chief of staff, Rhonda Foxx, rejected Graham’s claims of intraparty favoritism.

“The DCCC provides general member services to current Democratic House members,” Foxx told McClatchy. “These resources are available to all House Democrats and candidates.”

10.5 The percentage points by which Republican Brian Mast defeated Perkins in the general election

Democratic and Republican challengers have long asserted that both parties favor incumbents in primary races, a core complaint of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who challenged Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Juan Peñalosa.

Anna Douglas and Alex Daugherty of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed