Republican presidential prospects like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have tapped the tech industry’s fat wallets and mined its big-data expertise — but these 2016 hopefuls couldn’t be further from Silicon Valley when it comes to policy.
A series of major divides — from the fate of net neutrality to the future of surveillance reform — still splits this trio of prominent pols from Internet giants in the country’s tech heartland, which helped catapult President Barack Obama to well-funded victories in 2008 and 2012.
Web companies, for example, are pressing the Federal Communications Commission for new rules that would require Internet providers to treat all online traffic equally. But Cruz, Paul and Rubio are anything but neutral on net neutrality — they hate it, much less any government regulation at all.
Republicans also have a rift with the tech industry over domestic spying. More than a year of work by tech leaders like Facebook and Google to curtail the National Security Agency’s surveillance authorities failed this month in part because Rubio joined Paul, usually a supporter, in voting against it. And tech executives who have clamored for more high-skilled workers have heard only criticism lately from most Republicans, who slammed Obama after he issued an executive order on immigration reform.
Even the GOP acknowledges it has plenty of work to do to woo Silicon Valley. “If you look historically at who people donate to, it’s really been 9 or 10 to 1, Democrat to Republican — we haven’t done as well,” said Paul, who has been working to set up a new West Coast outpost.
But the senator stressed the GOP still has plenty to offer, especially on tax issues that matter to tech titans’ bottom lines. “Republicans are actually going to try to do something to help the economy,” he said.
Technology companies represent some of the most successful firms in the country, and their executives form the ranks of the nation’s richest. That means there’s plenty of campaign cash for candidates to milk — and Democrats long have dominated that well. Beyond money, Democrats also have outpaced Republicans in attracting the sort of tech talent required to run modern, data-intensive campaigns.
Obama in his first presidential campaign formed powerful alliances at companies like Google, and his team by 2012 had set up an entire apparatus — Technology 4 Obama — to solicit donations from the likes of Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. Entering the 2014 midterms, Democrats again returned repeatedly to Silicon Valley and San Francisco for a series of high-dollar fundraisers. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Sam Altman, the leader of Y Combinator, for example, hosted the president earlier this year; so did Mark Pincus, who founded Zynga.
“We’re talking about some very deep pockets here,” said Larry Gerston, a professor focusing on U.S. public policy at San Jose State University. “They’re just figuring out that money can buy them things they never imagined.”
But, Gerston added, “For all their efforts, certainly, Republican tech types and folks close to the Republican Party haven’t managed well.”
The poor political odds have only spurred the GOP to action. Paul this summer began work to set up a technology hub of sorts in San Francisco — and the Kentucky senator returned there in October for a fundraiser alongside other prominent Senate Republicans. Cisco CEO John Chambers helped host the event at the Woodside, California, home of Oracle’s Larry Ellison. These tech hardware players — and others, like new Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz and HP CEO Meg Whitman, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in California — long have backed and funded Republican candidates.
“He’s hopeful it’s a libertarian incubator of future Ayn Rands,” said Shawn Steel, a past chairman of the California Republican Party, when asked about Paul’s strategy. But even Steel acknowledged that many Internet company executives are “deeply in the infrastructure of progressive Democrats.”