Vulnerable Texas Republican takes on Russian election meddling

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, listens at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, listens at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting. AP

Rep. Will Hurd, one of the most vulnerable House Republicans seeking re-election next year, wants voters to know who’s responsible for digital campaign ads — the sort of ads used to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The San Antonio Republican has surprised campaign transparency advocates by joining with some Democrats in agreeing the rules governing online political ads need to be revisited. Other Republicans, though, have been reluctant to deal with the issue.

Hurd is running for re-election in a district that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016. The district is expected to be targeted by both Democrat and Republican-leaning outside groups.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee considers Hurd a top target, and a GOP super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., opened a field office in San Antonio on his behalf last week.

Hurd chaired a House Information and Techology Subcommittee hearing Tuesday on digit ads, a move that could attract support from both parties by championing an issue that polling shows voters is popular with voters.

A Marist poll released last week found 78 percent of Americans think political advertising on social media platforms should be fully disclosed.

The Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign finance laws, currently requires disclaimers saying who is paying for political ads run online, as it does with radio and television.

But those rules were created before Facebook and Twitter became popular, and the agency has hesitated to enforce them. It does not offer specific guidelines for specifics such as font size or how to navigate platforms with character limits. The FEC also doesn’t require campaigns to report how much money they’re spending on digital ads.

During the 2016 election, some online ads were purchased by accounts linked to Russia and were packaged to look like news content, making them even more difficult to police.

The FEC has reopened a long-stalled rulemaking to set new requirements for online ads and is soliciting public comment.

Bills in both the House and Senate have sought to guide that process. The Honest Ads Act, introduced in the Senate, has support from both parties, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Amy Klobuchar, D- Minn.,

The subcommittee had a hearing on the ideas Tuesday. Lawmakers and industry experts discussed methods for regulating ads across new media platforms, and whether companies like Facebook and Twitter should be responsible for the content of the ads on their sites.

“As we’ve seen in recent months and weeks, Russia has attempted to influence our democratic process, utilizing among other tools, political advertisements on major American social media platforms,” Hurd said.

His push surprised some groups that have advocated such changes for years, but said they hadn’t heard from Hurd.

"I haven't heard him champion the issue of transparency disclosure in the past, but he was saying all the right things," said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs for the government watchdog group Common Cause.

Hurd acknowledged that election hacking could have an outsized impact on his own race.

“As somebody coming from the great state of Texas where I am the only competitive district in the state, I’m very familiar with all of the political advertisements that may or may not be run against me,” Hurd said at one point.

Hurd is one of three Texas Republicans on Democrats’ target list, along with Houston area Rep. John Culberson and Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions.

Some Republicans on the committee criticized the effort as futile.

Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan said it would be impossible to determine what qualified as intentional political meddling, citing stories he disagreed with in the local news as an example.

“Who is going to determine what is fake news and stop it?” he asked.

Democrats on the committee praised Hurd.

“You are the first to hold a public hearing on the hacking of our election, Mr. Chairman and I want to thank you for that,” said Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts. “That’s shameful that it took so long.”

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch