Silicon Valley, the economic engine of the deep blue state of California, may be revving up for the GOP.
Last month, news surfaced that tech billionaire Sean Parker, of Napster and Facebook fame, was writing checks to Republican candidates across the country. The donations marked a strategic departure for Parker, who has largely backed Democrats in the past. This isn't a blip — it's part of a worrying trend for progressives, as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs show an increased willingness to put aside liberal idealism not only to side with libertarians when it comes to government snooping and regulations in the digital world, but also to reach across party lines to pursue their business interests in Washington. As Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University, puts it, "They may wear T-shirts to work, but the tycoons of Silicon Valley are, in some respects, J.P. Morgan's true heirs."
Silicon Valley is still widely considered a lock for Democrats. In 2012, Obama won 84 percent of the vote in nearby San Francisco, and his campaign relied on a team of developers and engineers to build an effective data mining strategy to target voters. The Democratic Party is viewed as a natural fit for techies, who tend to fall very liberal on social issues, like same-sex marriage, and environmental causes, like addressing climate change. But it wasn't always this way — during the 1970s and '80s, Silicon Valley regularly elected moderate GOPers. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in most of the counties that make up the Bay Area in 1980.
And there's evidence that some members of Silicon Valley are reaching out to the right again. Craig Montuori, who designed data systems for the Chris Christie campaign in 2009 and worked in the field for Obama in 2012, and now runs a political consultancy advocating for startup issues, says that until recently, the newest generation of startups and tech companies viewed Washington as unrelated to their businesses, and were happy to get caught up in idealism. But lawmakers' attempt to pass the Stop Online Pirating Act (SOPA) in 2011 — widely seen as curbing internet freedom — as well as aggressive Federal Trade Commission investigations into new startups like Snapchat, are changing that view. "Startups increasingly see that the government can and will be a threat," Montuori says.
And that could be good news for Republicans. Mike Hudome, a conservative media consultant who worked on John McCain's presidential campaign, says that, "tech entrepreneurs are like any other entrepreneurs: the majority want an environment with less government regulation." And indeed, tech companies are strategically reaching out to GOPers on common-ground issues like immigration and surveillance. Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg co-founded FWD.us, a lobbying group that aims to pass immigration reform that makes it easier for skilled workers to obtain H-1B visas, among other goals. The group is backed by notable Obama supporters, including Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. But FWD.us is making a concerted effort to appeal to conservatives. Not surprisingly, progressives have slammed the group for its tactics, which include using its subsidiary to run ads that support the Keystone XL Pipeline and drilling in the Arctic.
Tech entrepreneurs are also finding common ground with conservatives on government surveillance. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has met privately with Zuckerberg and Parker, according to New York, and he was the keynote speaker last month at an event in San Francisco hosted by Lincoln Labs. "Paul has been leading in rallying support around 4th Amendment and NSA issues, and he's built up quite a bit of good will in Silicon Valley because of it," says Garrett Johnson, Lincoln Labs' co-founder.
Johnson, who worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before co-founding his own startup, launched Lincoln Labs last fall to build a community for conservatives and libertarians in Silicon Valley. The organization has held events sponsored by a number of major tech companies, as well as conservative organizations like the Charles Koch Institute. They've also been contacted by most of the expected GOP presidential contenders. "If conservatives consider Silicon Valley completely out of reach, they'll get what they expect," Johnson says, adding, "The expectation can't be that you can chain a techie to a desk during campaign season to do menial tasks. You have to engage and build excitement about where the conservative and libertarian movement is going."
If the GOP wants to translate this momentum into votes and talent come 2016, the party will, of course, need to actually reach out to conservative-leaning members of the tech community. (Johnson says outside an engaged local political operation helping GOP candidates in California, this isn't happening yet.) Candidates also need to take guidance from tech enthusiasts like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who demonstrate that they care about startups and speak the language of the digital world. And the party will need to take a page out of Paul's book and emphasize less government intervention — not draconian drug and marriage regulations.
"The base Republican platform on social issues remains out of line with the views of most in the tech entrepreneurship," Montuori points out. "At the least, the GOP will need to accept a bigger tent and be less activist in trying to use the government to force their social views on the country."