No longer a political winner: Silicon Valley is a minefield for 2020 hopefuls

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing last April.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing last April.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Only three years ago, Silicon Valley was riding so high that Hillary Clinton seemed truly stumped when asked on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” whether she’d rather have George Clooney as a running mate or Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.

“Oh, that’s hard,” Clinton said at the time.

It is hard to imagine any Democratic presidential candidate hedging on the question today. Many might bristle at even being asked to pose for a selfie with a Facebook executive, much less run with one.

Silicon Valley’s standing in presidential politics has fallen many notches amid big-tech privacy intrusions, platform vulnerability to election interference and perceived corporate excess. The community that not long ago had candidates pining for its approval now finds its political reputation stuck somewhere between that of Wall Street and Big Pharma.


“If the question is what role will Silicon Valley have in picking the next president, the answer is probably a lot less than it thinks,” said Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who has worked as a political strategist for Uber and campaign manager for former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “There are few tech leader endorsements you would even actively covet.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has taken the most aggressive posture toward the tech industry, recently launching a proposal to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook through aggressive use of antitrust laws and strictly regulate how firms amass personal data. But even the most tech-friendly candidates have adopted some of Warren’s adversarial posture, if not her precise policy prescription.

Republicans offer the industry little relief. Erstwhile Silicon Valley boosters in the GOP have joined President Trump in threatening the firms over a perceived conspiracy to censor conservative voices.

Yet even if this crop of Democratic candidates does not want to be associated with the oligarchs and politically aloof innovators of Silicon Valley, it needs them just the same. Much like the bankers and brokers on Wall Street, the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have assets the candidates want — in this case knowledge of digital campaigning tools, policy expertise and big bank accounts that can be crucial to a White House bid.

The iPhones of wired Silicon Valley politicos are still ringing, with calls from the same campaigns that are using the valley as a political piñata.

“Every day here in San Francisco, there is another presidential candidate coming through,” said Chris Lehane, the longtime Democratic strategist who now heads global policy and public affairs at Airbnb. “There are two or three here this week.”


They are just circumspect.

No candidate this time around has sought a media moment by opening a satellite campaign office in a cubicle of a San Francisco incubator, as Republican Sen. Rand Paul did in the last presidential race. None are trying to prove their tech savvy by hailing an Uber en route to an appearance at the office of a gig-economy platform for plumbers, as Jeb Bush did in 2015.

Yet most of the top candidates this cycle have already been hosted by tech executives at fundraisers and are enlisting tech industry bundlers — well-connected supporters who can tap their networks of friends and business associates to raise tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars for campaign accounts.

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Operatives who have been around a few presidential cycles have seen similar episodes of industries falling out of political favor.

Former President Clinton aggressively and publicly courted Wall Street’s approval. By the time Hillary Clinton ran, holding a campaign rally near the New York Stock Exchange, as her husband did, was extremely ill-advised for a Democrat.

“Silicon Valley is feeling itself under the spotlight in a negative way for the first time” since the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, said Maria Salamanca, a venture capitalist and Democratic activist who helped launch Swing Left, one of the most successful new fundraising platforms for progressives. Yet at this early stage in the campaign, she said, tech leaders are not so much panicked as looking to sort out “candidates who are attacking tech because it is a hot talking point versus candidates bringing the appropriate amount of attention to issues of concern to everyone.”


Even as tech entrepreneurs say the hearings lawmakers are holding in Washington to berate companies like Facebook and Google have done little more than highlight how ill-prepared Capitol Hill is to regulate the sector, they are chastened by the problems that have been exposed. Their posture toward regulation is no longer resisting it at all cost. Many are eager to see the giant firms that have generated the most unwanted attention forced to improve their business practices.

“I spent my life in Silicon Valley, and I will be the first to say a lot of the larger firms here have lost the trust of the American people,” said venture capitalist Steve Westly, former California state controller and one of the tech industry’s most prolific Democratic fundraisers. “They need to do a better job protecting their customers.”

Westly has already enlisted to raise money for former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to enter the race at some point in April. Another star tech fundraiser, Amy Rao, is working to fill the campaign coffers of Sen. Kamala Harris. Silicon Valley power broker Ron Conway said in an email that he’ll be backing Harris, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and “likely others.”

“Many candidates running have relationships with Silicon Valley leaders and an understanding of the innovation economy, even if they don’t always agree with the tech sector’s perspective,” he wrote.

Beyond stealthy fundraisers in the living rooms of tech titans, even candidates who are among the most sharply critical of tech have been quietly traipsing the tech circuit, stopping in at incubators, visiting the Stanford campus and meeting people at intimate events at Manny’s, a social hub for innovators in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, eager to redistribute some of the wealth that big-tech executives amass, has signed on Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna as a top advisor. Khanna argues that some of the hostility candidates are directing toward his district is misguided.


“It displays a total lack of intellectual curiosity about the digital revolution,” said Khanna, a progressive who has championed an “internet bill of rights” and antitrust rules opposed by some of the big firms in his district. Candidates should be focused on spreading the innovation economy to struggling parts of the country, rather than attacking it, he said. The companies, unlike Wall Street firms, remain extremely popular with voters, he added.

“It’s a mistake in the candidate messaging,” Khanna said. “They are disconnected from what people in Middle America want. Those voters want to partner with tech leaders to create economic opportunity. I have been with them in these places. Often, the tech leaders are treated like rock stars.”

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