Hundreds of conservative and libertarian political operatives and techies are gathering this weekend in the heart of liberal California to try to bridge the digital disadvantage that dogged the GOP's presidential candidates in the last two White House campaigns.
“We think there is a big opportunity to connect the liberty-minded conservatives and libertarians in Silicon Valley and around the country with the campaigns and the causes that they really care about,” said Garrett Johnson, one of the co-founders of Lincoln Labs, which organized the inaugural Reboot conference that is taking place this weekend in San Francisco.
Lincoln Labs was formed by three young Silicon Valley Republicans in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, which set off tsunami warnings in GOP circles because of the Democrats' stark advantage in the use of technology and data. A scathing “autopsy report” by the Republican National Committee warned repeatedly that overcoming its technological disadvantage was among the most critical components to improving the party’s chances at retaking the White House.
“One of the clearest lessons from 2012 is that Republicans must catch up on how we utilize technology in our campaigns,” the report said. "Digital can simply no longer be an afterthought in our campaigns. It has to be embedded in every function and backed up with appropriate staffing and funding.”
The founders of Lincoln Labs personally experienced the discomfort some party and campaign officials had with the technologists who were trying to improve voter information databases and other digital components of the campaign’s machinery.
Johnson, a Rhodes scholar whose SendHub start-up includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among its investors, said that when he tried to help party officials improve their technology, he received a “lackluster” response. Co-founder Aaron Ginn, 26, the head of growth at StumbleUpon, left his job in 2012 to work on technology for GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful campaign for about six months. He found the experience “dysfunctional.”
The pair, along with Chris Abrams, decided after the election to reach out to conservatives and libertarians working in Silicon Valley, a small, somewhat clandestine group in an environment that is dominated by liberals. What began as meet-ups and happy hours has turned into this weekend’s three-day conference.
They face enormous obstacles -- voter registration in Silicon Valley is lopsidedly Democratic, and the party’s focus on social issues is problematic among some in the industry who may be otherwise sympathetic to the GOP’s economic message.
The industry’s campaign donations, which have grown sharply in the new millennium, also tilt to the left. In the 2012 election, individuals and companies associated with the industry contributed $64 million, with nearly two-thirds pocketed by Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. President Obama received $7.9 million of that money; Romney received $3.6 million.
But there are openings, as seen in a report earlier this week by Politico that billionaire Netflix co-founder Sean Parker had donated more than a half-million dollars to GOP efforts in this year’s mid-term elections. Parker had overwhelmingly given to Democrats in the past.
And there is overlap in the issues of importance to Silicon Valley and the GOP, notably on privacy concerns, as demonstrated by the National Security Agency email spying scandal, as well as issues such as education reform.
But Republicans who work in the Valley say a key sticking point remains social issues, such as GOP opposition to gay marriage.
“The lopsided nature of the political giving is the result of the party’s association with certain social issues more than it is about the respective parties’ approach to technology,” said a former Republican operative who worked on presidential campaigns and currently works in Silicon Valley. “The irony is that behind closed doors in Silicon Valley, you’re starting to hear more and more people that would consider themselves progressives who are outraged about how the administration has handled certain issues pertaining to technology, the way the federal and state budgets are mismanaged by Democrats in California and Washington, D.C.”
But social issues “will continue to be prohibitive until the time that Republicans field a national candidate who is more focused on fiscal issues and the economy and those more broad-based relevant issues … as opposed to wading so heavily into social issues,” said the former GOP operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve political and business relationships.
Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 White House candidate who has been leading the charge on the spying scandal, is the event’s most prominent speaker. He is also raising money for his Senate reelection fund and his political action committee at a fundraiser Friday night hosted by technology executives and venture capitalists at a steakhouse on the Embarcadero with an iconic view of the Bay Bridge. Guests are paying up to $10,000 each to attend.
Other speakers include Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican conference, and California GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari. The gathering also features a 24-hour hackathon with a $10,000 prize and a “start-up alley” sponsored by Microsoft.
People with official GOP groups are participating in panels and attending, but the Lincoln Labs effort is intentionally separate from the party, which is spending $17 million this year to ramp up its efforts.
Organizers said they wanted to create a grass roots-driven effort that is separate from the bureaucracy of the party organization.
“We all know this is a problem, let’s do something about it and stop waiting on D.C. to figure out what to do,” Ginn said. “Just fricking do it.”
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