GOP Taps Tech Allies To Narrow Digital Gap


The Republican Party is working with Silicon Valley investors on a venture, backed by political strategist Karl Rove, to create a digital platform for targeting voters and donors, an effort that is adding to tensions between the party’s establishment and its insurgent wings.

The talks on a new technology effort come as the Republican National Committee prepares to roll out an overall blueprint Monday for reviving the GOP after last year’s losses. As part of that effort, the RNC, the party’s main campaign arm, is trying to make up ground on the digital front against Democrats, who proved far more tech-savvy during the 2012 campaign.

A GOP digital initiative backed by Karl Rove, above left, is part of a broader retool by the RNC and its chairman, Reince Priebus.

A GOP digital initiative backed by Karl Rove, above left, is part of a broader retool by the RNC and its chairman, Reince Priebus.

The Silicon Valley venture, led by former Bain & Co. executive and private-equity investor Richard Boyce, with Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy serving as an adviser, is part of a core team working with the RNC to develop a central digital campaign tool that all Republican candidates and organizations can use in future elections.

The venture has won a prominent backer in Mr. Rove, the former White House adviser, who presented the group’s plans last month to a who’s who of Republican campaign groups. Among those attending the Feb. 26 rollout were senior representatives of the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and top aides from several congressional offices, according to several participants.

But the effort already is exacerbating tensions among conservatives who have grown distrustful of both the party and the core cadre of longtime advisers they blame for last year’s campaign failures. Mr. Rove is forming a new political-action committee designed to identify and support Republican candidates it views as most electable, which has angered conservative activists who have been working to unseat incumbent GOP senators and House members that they view as too moderate.

Infighting over whom to entrust with the party’s data mirrors the divisions between establishment GOP organizations—among them the RNC and American Crossroads, the super PAC founded with Mr. Rove’s involvement—and more insurgent-minded groups and figures, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Club for Growth and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

These tensions were vividly aired during the weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference, when speakers ranging from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to Heritage President Jim DeMint, a former GOP senator, slammed the party leadership and urged conservatives to look elsewhere for guidance.

Ms. Palin took a swipe at Mr. Rove at CPAC on Saturday, saying he shouldn’t be among those vetting GOP candidates and that he should return home to Texas and run for office himself.

“I’m confident conservatives can close the digital gap, but we shouldn’t rely on the Republican Party to do it,” said Rob Bluey, director of digital media at the Heritage Foundation. “We must invest in solutions that are going to build a movement that advances ideas rather than a political party.”

The Rove-supported venture hasn’t been distilled into a legal entity, and participants say its mission is still being refined. But one executive involved said the intent is to create an interactive platform with multiple applications to digest the GOP’s trove of data on voters, so that campaigns can better identify, persuade and motivate supporters.

The digital effort dovetails with the RNC’s own quest to create a better repository of voter data and a set of tools that Republican candidates and vendors can use as they build their own campaigns around the country. People involved in the discussions say that the Silicon Valley group could end up being the organization that creates and manages the repository and related digital tools. What role the RNC would play remains undetermined. PACs and other outside groups may be able to raise more money for such an effort than is the RNC, because of changes in campaign-finance practices.

“We are working within the party to create a big toolbox that can compete in the midterms and be used by all,” said Mr. Boyce, who was a significant fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last year.

Mr. McNealy declined to comment other than to say he appreciated the GOP had reached out to him “for advice, and not just for money.” Mr. Rove didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The RNC is planning on Monday to lay out at least the basics of its new digital plan as it releases its overall regrouping strategy. Recommendations will include a $10 million dollar effort to reach out to minority voters, an expansion of campaign offices into Democratic-friendly regions and a revamping of the prolonged presidential-primary process, which many conservatives say weakened their eventual 2012 nominee, Mr. Romney.

Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman, said Sunday he would like the GOP to shorten its primary season so the nominating convention is held in June or July, and hold fewer debates.

“I think we had way too many debates with our candidates slicing and dicing each other, and I think they had to wait too long to get to the convention,” Mr. Priebus said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

In 2012, the Republicans held their convention at the end of August. That proved a handicap for Mr. Romney, Mr. Priebus told CBS, because under campaign-finance laws, the former Massachusetts governor was barred from using money he had raised for the general election until he formally received the nomination at the convention. An earlier convention would give the nominee earlier access to general-election money.

On the digital front, Mr. Priebus plans to hire a chief technology officer and to boost the RNC’s presence on the West Coast, closer to more tech innovators. At the same time, the chairman “has talked to a number of people and asked them to work with us to develop the path forward for the party,” said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. Among those, she said, was “Dick Boyce and other data minds.”

Republicans had the lead in voter identification and targeting during George W. Bush’s time as president, and Mr. Rove was central to those efforts. When Democrats sought to catch up after losing the White House in 2004, they created a new entity, Catalist, to develop a better voter database and ways to use it, and they placed it outside the party machinery. That firm now counts a variety of Democratic campaigns, party committees, labor unions and liberal groups among its clients.

In 2008 and 2012 elections, the Obama campaign invested money and staff in gathering detailed information about voters and developing tools on messages and outreach. It remains an open question who will inherit the Obama apparatus, as it also now largely resides outside the Democratic Party, with a successor group to the campaign called Organizing for Action.

Republicans now must try to create a new digital architecture to assist a slew of future candidates and groups, many of whom are working at cross purposes.

“Rather than a party unifying around good ideas and good systems, what everyone fears is we end up with 15 groups and super PACs, each with its own digital program,” said Brian Donohue, a veteran of multiple GOP grass-roots efforts, including at the RNC. “That would not be good for the Republican Party.”

A version of this article appeared on The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: GOP Taps Tech Allies To Narrow Digital Gap.

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