February 28, 2013
Silicon Valley and the GOP - together at last?
That may seem like a peculiar proposition given all the public soul-searching and dirge-singing since Election Day over the digital failure of Republicans in modern campaigning. But a blast of cheerful California sunshine may be starting to light the way in the form of an underground gang of young, conservative hackers in the Valley assembling via a communal Google Document to brainstorm about what they can do to save the party from the clutches of tech-phobic leaders. "There's this myth that there aren't any Republicans out here who are willing to drop everything to help the way Democratic hackers have," said Aaron Ginn, who with Garrett Johnson have dubbed their nascent brain trust the Republican Stealth Mob. "We're out here, and we want to help."
Although the Mob exists almost entirely online, Ginn said more than 50 programmers and other techies are ready to help build new tools to modernize the party's widely panned digital infrastructure. Many of those on the list are secret conservatives at top companies fearful of "coming out" in the uber-liberal Bay Area, Ginn said. Already, Ginn and Johnson have had audiences with some significant GOP figures including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's campaign manager, Mike DuHaime, and top Republican campaign strategists Patrick Ruffini and Vince Harris.
What makes this gang different from the myriad of existing GOP digital strategy firms with hanging shingles in Washington is that the Silicon Valley bunch isn't in it for the money and they're not as interested in political gamesmanship as they are in creating useful and usable campaign tools. They look upon the much-vaunted Obama tech team not with contempt but with admiration over its impressive sites, sleek apps and intuitive systems. Ginn, 24, director of growth for StumbleUpon, and Johnson, 28, co-founder of SendHub, are typical. "This is a unique group that wants to help and wants to lend their expertise - and they all have day jobs," DuHaime said after meeting Ginn and Johnson at a Christie fundraiser hosted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. "There's a chance for them to do some things for us that are not always typical for Republicans." Johnson agreed: "The people who provide advice in D.C. are part of the consulting industrial complex. It's an honorable living, but that's how they make their income. We're technologists."
That altruistic earnestness, coupled with Ginn's own personal story of his time inside the Mitt Romney digital campaign, give this effort credibility to many of those on the right seeking to understand what went wrong in 2012. Ginn left a Silicon Valley startup for which he was a late co-founder to move to Boston last July. A self-described religious conservative and former head of the College Republicans at Texas Christian University, he was propelled in particular by his outrage over the Supreme Court's affirmation of Obamacare in June.
Troubles began almost immediately. He learned that the campaign's online home, MittRomney.com, was built on an archaic architecture that required the entire site to be updated every time most changes were made. That made the site more prone to crashing and made rapid response more cumbersome, as evidenced by the lag of days before the front of the site touted Romney's triumph in the first presidential debate. He said his offer to re-code the site was turned down. He had been hired to manage and grow something called MyMitt, a little-used program intended to help rank-and-file volunteers raise money. MyMitt was clunky and unpleasant, Ginn said, so he laid out an $80,000 proposal to bring in four Republican computer engineers to build something new.
The campaign at first was encouraging but then decided after a week to nix it. Mostly, the campaign infrastructure needed a dose of Silicon Valley liberty and nimbleness, Ginn said. "I wanted to make basic developer changes to the site that would've improved the user experience," he said. "I could have coded it myself and it would have taken a day. Instead, they went through this process and it took three weeks." Rather than return to California embittered by the experience, he and Johnson decided to build a list of technologists who would either help a campaign that was receptive to creative ideas or build tools on their own to give away to candidates on an open-source basis.
Silicon Valley has long been an enigma to Republicans. As the nation's hub of product innovation and economic growth, it is Exhibit A for free-market conservatives of American ingenuity and creativity. But the region is also heavily Democratic. While there are some high-profile venture capitalists and tech execs such as Peter Thiel, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, the rank-and-file programmers are largely social liberals. Thus, Ginn said, the perceived need among many of his Mob listers is to be discreet about politics. Even so, Ginn and Johnson have some unusual allies - including former Obama for America chief technology officer Harper Reed. Reed made it clear he "absolutely doesn't want to help them elect Republicans - that's unequivocally the thing I don't want to do."
Still, he sympathized with Ginn's plight in Boston and is willing to encourage him because "he's trying his best to do what he's good at. It's like, dude, I understand that." Reed's help has amounted to identifying for Ginn and Johnson potential Valley conservatives among the programmer ranks. "Here's someone who is young, he was excited, he reminded me a lot of myself when I was young and he told a story of being unempowered," Reed said. "He is someone who would have been very successful on my team. I figured I'd get to know him a little bit in case I need to hire him someday soon for my startup."
The 2013 Christie campaign is a key - and ideal - proving ground for the Mob. DuHaime has signaled he's receptive to help, Christie is a wildly popular favorite and there won't be much other election noise this year. "The party will benefit immediately and in the future from having a successful model of technology used the right way and a model that is replicable and scalable, and Christie is entertaining interest in being that model," said Johnson, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer and ex-aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. For his part, Ginn is done asking for permission. He and his Mob intend to "roll forward regardless of if the Christie or [Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken] Cuccinelli [campaigns] want us to."
First up: a weekend hackathon to build open-source software. "We're going to use this moment," he said. "People are energized; they want to do something. I'm still figuring out what that spills out into." Cheering them along are the likes of Ruffini, the Webmaster for the 2004 Bush reelection campaign and RNC eCampaign director from 2005 to 2007. Ruffini, who was involved with digital efforts for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's 2009 election and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's upset in 2010, views Ginn and his cadres as "the real deal." "It's very refreshing to talk to folks like that, who aren't necessarily all gloom and doom and are trying to take matters into their own hands," said Ruffini, owner of the GOP campaign consultancy Engage LLC. "There's going to have to be some kind of outside force that takes the lead on this." Politico
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