WASHINGTON ― Every candidate running for office may be unique, but, when it comes to campaigning, they all essentially end up worrying about the same things.
Candidates fret about how best to reach voters, how to raise enough cash and when to run their first attack ads. How they handle these three issues will determine whether they are successful on election night.
No candidate has had to confront is the hacking of their private campaign materials. That is, until 2016. When Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign fell victim to a Russian-backed hacking operation, down-ballot candidates across the country were targeted as well. On this week’s episode of “Candidate Confessional,” we interviewed one of those targets: Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who ran for Congress in South Florida.
Taddeo started her campaign worrying about her name recognition, trying to win over the dominant Cuban immigrant voting bloc and having to make up a 24-point deficit against her primary opponent, former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia. Unlike her opponent, who had his share of baggage, Taddeo saw her clean record as her selling point.
“The strength was cleanliness ― the not having any kind of blemish on my record,” Taddeo explained. “This district in particular was very tired of the scandals.”
The hack of her campaign changed all that.
Taddeo knew that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had been hacked. She said she asked party officials about it. No one raised alarms that her materials might have been stolen. She didn’t find out her campaign had been hacked until it was too late: when a blogger started to publish stories using the private materials.
“There was no preparation and no warning,” she told us.
Among the materials leaked to reporters: Taddeo’s opposition research on Garcia as well as the Democratic Party leaders’ private concerns about Taddeo as a candidate. One memo considered her an “incompetent candidate” and worried that voters could look at her and see just another “wealthy elitist.”
Taddeo, who had been gaining ground on Garcia, suddenly saw her campaign stall. Garcia used the materials to paint her as the real dirty candidate. “I definitely felt like I was out there campaigning sort of naked,” she said. “It’s the best way I can describe it because you’re an open book.”
Taddeo lost to Garcia by 2 percentage points in the primary. Republicans were then able to successfully use the hacked materials against Garcia, who lost to Carlos Curbelo in November. With a just few keystrokes, hackers were able to take down two Democratic candidates in one congressional district.
At the time of our interview with Taddeo, she said she had not been interviewed by the FBI about the hacking.
Listen to the latest episode of “Candidate Confessional” above.