When overworked Silicon Valley innovators retreated to the Nevada desert a week ago for the annual Burning Man festival, some met an unexpected reveler.
There, among the drug-infused performance art, stood a buttoned-down policy wonk from Washington preaching small government to the Bay Area creative class.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, challenged left-coasters not to dismiss him as another dull D.C. politico when he marveled over the event’s ceremonial “Burn” of a giant sculpture. He took to Twitter to laud Burning Man’s “wonder of creativity and hard work.”
FOR THE RECORD:
GOP and Silicon Valley: In the Sept. 8 Section A, the caption for a photo accompanying an article about Republican politicians’ efforts to ingratiate themselves with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs referred to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, as a senator. —
Creativity and hard work also describe conservatives’ efforts to make inroads with the Bay Area’s innovation economy. Republicans, after musing about the possibility for more than a decade, have finally found a footing in Silicon Valley, ingratiating themselves with tech entrepreneurs who had long eschewed politics in general, conservative politics in particular.
Democrats haven’t yet lost their advantage, but Bay Area techies are writing increasingly sizable checks to GOP candidates and causes, sometimes with great fanfare, as when Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg hosted a fundraiser at his house last year for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Google is helping bankroll some of the most conservative think tanks in Washington, including Norquist’s group. A bromance of sorts has kindled between Elon Musk and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
Some tweaking of their brand and deft maneuvering on issues where Democrats are failing to deliver for tech has opened new doors for the GOP.
“I come out quite often,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) after stepping off the stage last month at a cyber security event at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto. “The Democrats have so many special interest groups that pull them away from Silicon Valley, it is amazing to me why anyone here thinks Democrats will do any good for them.”
Later that day, Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), a no-nonsense former federal prosecutor, could be seen, his suit jacket draped over his shoulder, joking with Google staffers near the volleyball court at the company’s headquarters.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss was also around, on the second of at least three trips to California the Republican has planned before he retires at year’s end.
“We can disagree on social issues,” Chambliss said of the dynamic between his caucus and tech entrepreneurs, “but if they agree with us 60% or 70% of the time, they are going to lean our way financially and otherwise.”
Longtime alliances between Democrats and tech have frayed on several issues.
A proposed overhaul of patent law, a priority for Silicon Valley, cruised through the GOP-controlled House this year only to be squashed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) amid pressure from trial lawyers.
The Obama administration’s willingness to allow the NSA to snoop on electronic communications, exposed by former security contractor Edward Snowden, created a public relations crisis for social media firms and threatens to cost the cloud-computing industry billions of dollars in lost business.
In state houses, Democrats are championing online consumer protection efforts that expose tech companies to new liabilities. At the behest of organized labor, Democrats are pushing measures that undermine ride-sharing firms such as Uber, one of the most lucrative new businesses spawned by Silicon Valley.
“Balancing the need for innovation against entrenched special interests has become a difficult thing for the left,” said Joe Lonsdale, a venture capitalist. Lonsdale, a relative political neophyte with the liberal social views typical of the Bay Area, has been donating mostly to Republicans, including hosting a fundraiser in his home for McCarthy.
“A lot of Republicans have economic views that are more in line with the way many of us here see the world,” he said.
The GOP has been courting donors such as Lonsdale in some not-so-subtle ways. An online “Petition in Support of Innovative Companies Like Uber” was launched recently by the Republican National Committee. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has given speeches at the Washington offices of both Uber and Google in which he assailed efforts to restrict the wildly popular service.
Playing both sides of the aisle, Uber recently hired David Plouffe, formerly a top aide to President Obama, as its senior vice president for policy and strategy.
Rubio earlier endeared himself to Silicon Valley by pushing for immigration reform. Tech executives are donating to his campaign coffers despite his renown as one of the country’s most prominent climate-change skeptics.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s brand of libertarianism has intrigued some politically disconnected techies. Paul also scored points with the more established tech firms when he called on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to apologize to Tim Cook, head of Apple, amid blistering questioning about the company’s aggressive tax-avoidance schemes.
In contrast to the showmanship of his colleagues, McCarthy has been toiling quietly but persistently to cultivate relationships between tech firms and the GOP rank and file, coaxing them, as one tech insider put it, to “meet each other and see that neither one is a three-headed monster.”
The congressman regularly briefs tech CEOs through conference calls arranged by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “The CEOs love it,” said Carl Guardino, the organization’s president. “They are used to elected officials talking at them, but Kevin doesn’t dominate the call. He listens a lot more than he speaks. He gives concise, thoughtful answers.”
McCarthy brings delegations of colleagues to tour tech companies. He lured Musk onto Capitol Hill for a private chat with GOP leaders and then persuaded the innovator to headline a lecture series in Bakersfield. When Musk’s SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket, McCarthy swept aside grumbling from colleagues about all the tax money the company spends to declare the event a “pivotal moment for the future of spaceflight.”
That evolving GOP view toward innovation subsidies was on display Wednesday when one of Silicon Valley’s heavily subsidized firms, hydrogen fuel-cell manufacturer Bloom Energy, welcomed Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican who flies a tea party flag outside his Capitol office.
Republicans, though, are not just targeting the corporate giants of the Valley. A popular stop on their West Coast circuit is Engine, a nonpartisan advocacy group that brings policymakers together with tech startups. Members were dazzled this year by the passion with which a little-known Kansas City GOP congressman, Kevin Yoder, has taken up their cause of curbing law enforcement intrusions into digital communications. His bill has strong bipartisan support.
“A lot of people in the Democratic party are taking the tech community for granted,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine. “The truth is these are voters who are pragmatic and forward looking, and they are up for grabs.”