Did Facebook Doom Chris Kelly's Run For CA Attorney General?

Did Facebook doom Chris Kelly’s run for Attorney General of California?

According to early results, Kamala Harris won the Democratic primaries on Tuesday night, leaving the former Chief Privacy Officer in second place. At first glance, the idea of blaming Mark Zuckerberg for Kelly’s downfall seems absurd. Kelly, after all was the underdog, a less known candidate that had consistently trailed Harris (the San Francisco DA) in the polls from a comfortable distance.

However, while the Facebook effect is an improbable theory, it’s still very plausible. Let’s look at the facts.

A May 10 SurveyUSA poll showed Harris in the lead with 22%, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo with 16%, and Kelly with 11%. Kelly narrowed that gap in recent weeks to six percentage points, thanks to an aggressive ad campaign— the last SurveyUSA poll, conducted this week, showed Kelly with 20%, Harris with 26% and 15% still undecided. This recent advance in the polls, and his leapfrog over Delgadillo, shows that Kelly was able to largely overcome the latest Facebook backlash (which began in earnest in early May). While those numbers suggests that Kelly’s tie to Facebook’s privacy policy didn’t cripple his bid for Attorney General, there is a strong possibility that without the controversy he could have gained more ground in the final days.

Full disclosure: we heartily endorsed Kelly back in August 2009 and we were the first news outlet to report his candidacy. Further Clarification: We have also never sued Chris Kelly for assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress, despite reports.

Kelly was spearheading a well-funded campaign, investing roughly $12 million of his personal fortune. The battle between Harris and Kelly had intensified in the last few months, with each going for the jugular and launching highly charged, negative attacks. Kelly criticized Harris’ conviction rate as district attorney and her role in the police crime lab controversy, Harris questioned Kelly’s campaign financing (which involved Facebook stock) and his role as Facebook’s privacy honcho. As Harris wrote in a campaign statement: “Was Kelly simply a fox guarding the hen house at Facebook?…If Kelly couldn’t stand up to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg¬†on behalf of Facebook users, how on earth can Californians trust Kelly to go to bat on their behalf as attorney general?”

If that message wasn’t crystal clear try this brief video ad paid for by Kamala Harris’s campaign, the announcer says: “His only experience is designing a Facebook privacy policy condemned across the country. Chris Kelly released your privacy information.” Note to self, do not pick a fight with Kamala.

Harris’ warpath was clear: she would use the popular site as a vehicle to question Kelly’s ethics– both literally and metaphorically. Serendipitously for her campaign, the Facebook media frenzy broke out just as her battle was approaching its crescendo. Ultimately, the Facebook backlash fizzled and the Fair Political Practices Commission gave the green light on Kelly’s financing, but Kelly did not escape unscathed. There was a spate of reports in publications like Time, SFGate, Wall Street Journal, asking if Facebook would “torpedo” Kelly’s hopes. That’s not the kind of press you want to court in the final hours of your campaign trail. The attacks also put Kelly on the defense, his spokesperson reminded reporters that he had effectively left the company last August (excluding him from the latest round of privacy shenanigans) and Kelly himself issued a statement to distance his campaign from Facebook: “I strongly encourage Facebook to structure all its programs to allow Facebook users to give permission before their information is shared with third parties….When I am Attorney General, Facebook, like every company, will have to comply with its obligations to adhere to the law, provide truthful information to consumers and to keep its promises about their privacy rights.”

Because Facebook formed the foundation of Harris’ offense, it’s fascinating to consider what would have happened if the social site was out of the equation. Sure a majority of the voters probably don’t care about Facebook or its privacy policy, but it could have made the difference for some of the undecided.¬† And if so, has internet privacy just been catapulted to the rank of major domestic issue? Probably not, but I’m sure it’s a thought that’s crossed Kelly’s mind today.