Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and the state Republican party paid a controversial political consulting firm $345,000 to help target voters three years ago. Now Democrats are raising questions, after news this week that the firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly obtained Facebook data on 50 million Americans and also had dealings with Russian interests.
Federal election records show Tillis and the state Republican Party hired Cambridge Analytica for its specialty - microtargeting. That's where marketers try to influence people's behavior by customizing messages using detailed data about their demographics and interests.
The practice is common today among political campaigns, said political analyst Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.
“The more information that a campaign, campaign strategists, political parties have about potential voters the more likely they are to be able to sort them into respective camps and attempt to utilize information persuasion techniques to be able to motivate them to go out and vote,” Bitzer said.
It's a tactic used by politicians of all stripes. Cambridge Analytica is backed by Republican donors and has advised many Republican campaigns, including President Donald Trump's 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign is now under investigation over possible ties to Russians trying to influence the election.
North Carolina Democrats are now pointing fingers at Republicans because of how Cambridge Analytica got the data and because of news reports that the firm had dealings with Russians before the 2016 election.
“Some of the same services perhaps were used here (in North Carolina) as a trial run for 2016,” state Democratic Chairman Wayne Goodwin said Tuesday. “So the Democratic Party is asking for information about what the role of Cambridge Analytica for the Republican Party in this state.”
The New York Times reports that Cambridge Analytica obtained data on millions of Facebook users without their permission, through a Russian American psychology researcher named Aleksandr Kogan. He claimed to be doing academic research in the form of a Facebook personality quiz. The Times says it appears he also was harvesting data about not only those users but also their contacts as well.
To Bitzer, that's a big question mark.
“You know the real question is how much information was garnered and was it garnered legally by Cambridge Analytica? Or was this potentially, in 2014 with the Tillis campaign, a test run to see how things might operate in 2016? I think there's a lot of unknowns at this point in time,” Bitzer said.
Federal election reports show at least three Republican groups used Cambridge Analytica in the 2014-15 election cycle. The state Republican Party spent $215,000. Tillis's campaign spent $130,000. And 10th District Congressman Patrick McHenry spent $15,000 for polling and research.
Tillis said in a statement Tuesday that Cambridge Analytica provided "limited services" to his winning the 2014 Senate campaign against Democrat Kay Hagan. Tillis said he expects "all services" to his campiagn, including those provided by third parties, to be lawful, adding, "if we were misled by a vender, that would be deeply disturbing."
McHenry's spokesman referred questions to his campaign, which also did not respond.
North Carolina Republican Party chair Dallas Woodhouse said in a statement Tuesday that Democrats were being unfair and noted that Democrats use the same kinds of voter profiling tools.
Woodhouse blamed Democrats for "creating an absurd new standard" that holds campaigns responsible for misdeeds by vendors or contractors.
The allegations against Cambridge Analytica come as other concerns arise over Russian meddling in North Carolina politics. In one case, Russians helped organize an anti-Trump rally after the 2016 election. And in another, a North Carolina candidate reported that her former campaign website had been bought by a Russian man.