How Biden's FCC nominee became a major campaign target

Gigi Sohn looks on during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing, examining her nomination to be appointed Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., February 9, 2022. Pete Marovich/Pool via REUTERS
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WASHINGTON - Nearly two years into President Biden's term, he and Senate Democrats have yet to lock down a majority at the Federal Communications Commission amid a protracted fight over his pick for the agency, Gigi Sohn. Progressive groups and consumer advocates have lamented the delay as hamstringing efforts to restore open internet protections and expand broadband access.

Sohn's nomination has faced steadfast opposition from Senate Republicans, who have pointed to her past advocacy work and public remarks on topics including Fox News in casting the former Democratic FCC staffer as a "partisan" and "radical" activist.

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That push to tank Sohn's nomination has been bolstered by conservative groups taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads, according to a review by The Washington Post.

The moves highlight how the battle over the FCC nomination, which typically draws limited fanfare, grew into a significant campaign flash point.

In the past year, two conservative nonprofits - the American Accountability Foundation (AAF) and the Center for a Free Economy (CFE) - have placed at least $246,000 in Facebook ads opposing Sohn, according to a review of digital ads archives. Facebook does not disclose the exact amount paid or reach garnered for ads on the site, but its database shows that the two groups' paid messages have been shown to users at least 14.8 million times.

The bulk of the spending has come from AAF, an opposition research group that has targeted dozens of Biden's nominees. The ads, some of which were still running as of last week, hammer Sohn over what they call her "extremist defund the police politics" and cite opposition to her nomination from the Fraternal Order of Police, a group made up of law enforcement officials.

The ads appear to reference a memo released by the law enforcement group surfacing tweets that Sohn "liked" pushing back on "'Defund' ... attacks" and calling on lawmakers to pass progressive agenda items including to "Defund police surveillance."

AAF and CFE did not return requests for comment. Sohn declined to comment.

Jeff Hauser, founder of the progressive watchdog group Revolving Door Project, said the spending makes the campaign among the most sprawling of any targeting a Biden pick.

"It's relatively rare that you see this kind of effort," said Hauser, whose group tracks federal appointments and the battles over their confirmations.

Hauser said it's rare for a single commissioner or regulator to face this level of opposition, and he said the Facebook campaigns are likely just a fraction of the total money spent given that there are "many forms of spending which do not create a financial trail."

Hauser pushed back on the criticisms leveled against Sohn in the ads, particularly those based off her past liked tweets related to policing. "No one can meaningfully determine what her views are on policing from a liked tweet," he said.

One AAF ad running through Dec. 9 warned that "some senators may sneak her into office in the lame-duck session before the end of the year" and urged Biden to pick "a new nominee."

The message arrives during a key stretch: Senate Democrats face a dwindling window to confirm Sohn before their session expires after the end of the year, and will need to overcome additional procedural hurdles next year if they do not.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who controls floor votes, did not return requests for comment on whether he intends to take up Sohn's nomination before the end of the year. The White House did not return a request for comment.

Sohn's nomination also has been opposed by the One Country Project, a group founded by former Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly, which in April announced "a six-figure ad campaign" arguing that Sohn "is the wrong choice for the FCC and rural America."

The group, which did not return a request for comment, said the ads would run in key states whose senators could be crucial to Sohn's still-pending nomination, including West Virginia, Nevada and Arizona.

Facebook ads explicitly mentioning Sohn were dominated by messages opposing her nomination, according to our review, but at least one group took out ads backing it.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA), a labor union representing employees of communications and media firms, bought at least $52,000 in Facebook ads backing Sohn. The messages were shown to users at least 2.8 million times, according to the ad database.

"Don't let corporate CEOs and their dark money groups stop the expansion of high-speed broadband access to the entire country," said one ad urging support for Sohn. Beth Allen, a spokesperson for CWA, said in a statement that they are "fully engaged" in backing Sohn because it is "extremely important" that the FCC be "fully staffed."

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