In March of last year, Stephen Colbert stepped out onto the Late Show stage and kicked off a monologue over the twinkle of a keyboard. “Hey, I’ve got a quick question for you guys, if you don’t mind me asking,” he said to the audience. “Anybody here use the internet?”
The audience cheered. “Might want to knock that off,” he deadpanned.
Congress had just voted to allow internet service providers to sell the browser histories of consumers, a move that was greeted by an overwhelming backlash online. No one in the United States wanted that, Colbert said — except, he suggested, a Republican representative from Tennessee Marsha Blackburn. He showed a clip where the lawmaker argued the change would, in fact, improve privacy. He quipped that Blackburn’s search history might include “how to spout bullshit.”
At the time, it seemed the browser history vote was politically poisonous for the Republicans who pushed it through. Yet Blackburn, who became more identified than most lawmakers with the rollback, has not only survived politically, but is reaching higher. This November, she will square off in a hotly contested Senate battle in Tennessee against former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen. Blackburn worked on President Trump’s transition team, and the race will be close enough that Trump made an appearance to rally supporters — “We need Marsha Blackburn to win” — even if Blackburn’s candidacy was secondary to his own platform in his speech.
During her 15 years in the House, Blackburn, chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, has been one of the most reliably active conservatives in tech policy, working to shape several high-profile debates around issues like net neutrality and consumer privacy. Like Trump, she has also built a foil out of Silicon Valley, which she has accused of being filled with liberal censors. While she already wields power over the tech landscape, her influence would grow with a move to the Senate. Before she gets there, her race against Bredesen will test the ability of tech policy questions to sway voters, and Silicon Valley’s appeal as a villain for the right.
Blackburn has long pushed for a deregulated web. As far back as 2011, in a speech outlining her vision of the internet, she called on Americans to “defend against the Washington instinct to hyper-regulate all that is new and imperfectly understood.” That year, Politico wondered whether Blackburn was making a play to be conservatives’ “next tech champion,” as she moved to block net neutrality rules. She also supported the controversial anti-piracy legislation SOPA before turning against it as criticism mounted. In 2014, Blackburn spearheaded a plan to erect hurdles to municipal broadband networks. For consumer activists, she’s often singled out as the lawmaker who is the most hostile toward progressive tech policies. She describes the issues as “vital debates that will determine the future of free markets, free speech, and free people.” (Blackburn’s campaign did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)
Blackburn had tried repeatedly, over years, to preempt net neutrality rules by passing legislation. In late 2017, after the FCC moved to repeal protections, Blackburn introduced a bill that would have instituted some rules, while enshrining the right of internet service providers to give preferential treatment to certain internet traffic. The legislation was quickly derided by activists as a “fake” net neutrality bill that was a backdoor attempt to undermine protections. Her attempt to bring back some of the internet privacy rules she’d helped gut, while also blocking state regulations, was met with similar skepticism.
Bredesen, meanwhile, is a net neutrality supporter, although it would be difficult to call the issue a centerpiece of the campaign. Instead, he has focused on access more broadly, putting out a plan for rural broadband expansion.
Blackburn’s critics point to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in telecom company-linked donations the lawmaker has received as evidence that she is indebted to the industry. Disclosure records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that her Senate run has also been underwritten by the telecom industry. More than $100,000 in donations tied to AT&T, Comcast, CenturyLink, and Sprint parent company SoftBank, none of which were among Bredesen’s top contributors, have been poured into the run as the race sets up a battle over the future of tech and Congress itself.
Last year, after Blackburn introduced legislation to bring back some of the privacy rules she’d worked to roll back, two Brookings Institution scholars asked: “Could consumer internet privacy legislation show potent populist appeal?”
There was some precedent. In 1992, they pointed out, Congress overrode only one veto from then-President George H.W. Bush: a law to regulate cable rates that passed with bipartisan support the month before an election. Cable companies, the scholars write, had become “consumer villains,” and lawmakers were unwilling to test their luck with voters by shooting down the legislation. Still, that was a different, less polarized era. Despite massive protests on the web on issues broadly popular like net neutrality, it’s not clear what impact standing against tech issues ultimately has on a candidacy.
Occasionally, the issue flares up in the state. In January, Dan Hogan, a Tennessee entrepreneur, published an op-ed in The Tennessean called “Marsha Blackburn on wrong side of net neutrality debate.” Hogan has lived in the state for 20 years and runs a health care analytics company there. He wonders whether it would’ve been possible to start his business if the data he works with could have been deprioritized. The concerns led him to write that Republican action on net neutrality “amounts to a money grab by Big Telecom, aided by their loyal soldier, Representative Blackburn, and her Congressional allies.”
Still, Hogan questions how issues like the tech industry could affect a Senate run like Blackburn’s. He says “he’s afraid that while I view this issue as important,” other voters might not place the same value on it.
Some activists are still trying to sway Tennesseans, though. The pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future placed Blackburn’s face on a billboard — one of several that appeared in lawmakers’ districts — shaming her for her position on net neutrality. “Rep. Blackburn took money from Verizon,” the sign read. “Now she wants to give ISPs powers to censor, slow and tax your Internet.”
John Ray Clemmons, a Democratic Tennessee state representative, has gone to bat for net neutrality in the state without success. As other states have following the FCC’s national repeal of the rules last year, he introduced legislation that would have effectively restored the protections at a state level. But the bill went nowhere. It was killed in committee — a decision he blames on telecom companies that lobbied lawmakers against the plan, Clemmons says. “For my bill not to even get the opportunity to be discussed, it was pretty clear what was going on,” he says.
Clemmons, who supports Bredesen in the race, says Blackburn is “transparent about who she takes campaign donations from and what she does policy wise,” and “has been in the pocket of Big Telecom and these big ISPs for years.” That past, he believes, could have an influence on Tennessee voters. “I have strongly encouraged the Bredesen campaign to focus on these two issues [digital privacy and net neutrality] and I’m confident that they will if given the opportunity,” Clemmons says. In digital spaces like Reddit’s r/nashville, meanwhile, users are critical of Blackburn’s policies. “I’m just strongly opposed to things she endorses such as paid prioritization as well as gutting the FCC’s ability to regulate ISPs as common carriers,” one user says.
Even a minor wedge issue could change the state of the race where the polls have clocked razor-thin margins between the candidates. While the state voted for Trump by 26 points in the 2016 election, and Blackburn has hitched her race tightly to the president’s wagon, Bredesen’s campaign has proved competitive. A popular former governor, Bredesen has been neck and neck with Blackburn for much of the campaign, and he recently slipped ahead in the polls. As Republicans look to defend crucial margins in Congress, the race has turned into a closely watched battleground.
At least one study funded by a pro-net neutrality group found that, in battleground districts, net neutrality was a potential issue, and a majority considered it an important factor in who they voted for in the midterms. When asked, 23 percent of total respondents said net neutrality was “very important” in choosing a midterm candidate, while 34 percent rated it “somewhat important.” While the framing may have played a role — the question focused on consumer protections — the poll found that broad support in battlegrounds reached across party lines, with 63 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats supporting the idea. Democrats have shown interest in making the issue a part of their national push this November, but how many votes are ultimately changed based on the issue is difficult to foresee.
It’s not clear if the Bredesen campaign is eager to hammer the opposition on tech issues, either, despite Blackburn’s history, but Bredesen does support net neutrality, and clearly has a grasp of the issue. “We never put the telephone system together with the idea that if you were a big company you got much better telephone service and faster service,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “We treated everyone the same and I think we absolutely need to do the same with net neutrality. I’d like to move us back to net neutrality and I think that will help very much a lot of these small tech-oriented startups that Chattanooga and other places in Tennessee have.”
“I haven’t heard much about it, no,” state Rep. Cameron Sexton, a Republican supporter of Blackburn, said about how Blackburn’s tech policies played with voters in the state. He’s more interested in what a Blackburn vote means for broader interests — a conservative Supreme Court seat, for example, or preventing Sen. Chuck Schumer from taking the top job in the Senate.
Blackburn and Bredesen have both been focused instead on promoting rural internet projects, although the best route to that goal also led to an ideological dispute. Blackburn has pushed for working with private industry on projects. Bredesen, in a plan that seems to echo public works enterprises of the past, has suggested the Tennessee Valley Authority could support a rural broadband initiative. “We must empower TVA to echo once again what it did at its inception — this time with broadband internet,” he said in a speech announcing the plan. But as Clemmons points out, access is one step behind quality access. Expanding broadband only to throttle it is “sort of a gotcha,” he says.
Before Trump’s most recent attacks on Google, Blackburn was well ahead of the curve in finding a foil in the industry and in making accusations of political bias. In her campaign launch video last year, she claimed that she “fought Planned Parenthood and we stopped the sale of baby body parts, thank God.” Twitter blocked the video, which referenced a Congressional investigation that did not ultimately find evidence of tissue sales, from being advertised for its “inflammatory” language.
“.@Twitter shut down our video ad, claiming it’s ‘inflammatory’ & ‘negative,’” she wrote in a follow-up tweet. “Join me in standing up to Silicon Valley → RETWEET our message!”
More recently, as Trump has pushed a conspiracy about negative Google search results, the Blackburn campaign has done the same. The campaign, in an automated text message, asked for donations using a screenshot of a tweet from Trump. “Silicon Valley has proven, once again, that it is relentless in showing its extreme bias against Republicans,” the message read.
The framing has given her a way to dismiss critics of her policies. In June, she tweeted that her privacy and net neutrality legislation would “finally give American consumers the protections they deserve” — despite critics arguing it would do no such thing.
“Contrary to what Silicon Valley liberals may say, #NetNeutrality is not dead,” she wrote. “I have always been a champion of a free and open internet.”