In an Edwardian home in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, close to a dozen people gathered for a political fundraiser with a dirty little secret.
The neighbourhood was the site of the Summer of Love in 1967 and retains a Bohemian vibe, so the house seemed a natural venue for permissive types from the Democratic party. The attendees were in fact Republicans.
In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the technology hub of America, liberal viewpoints reign and the Democrats dominate politics. The Republican brand is tainted there, in part because of the positions of high-profile politicians on climate change and social issues like gay marriage.
But with the midterm elections approaching, and local and congressional seats up for grabs, Republicans from across the country have been visiting the Valley to drum up money, if not votes, and are playing to the libertarian sentiment that drifts through the ether. The Democratic hegemony is being tested – a little.
The candidate, who is standing for a non-partisan position in the city, said by the drinks table that he did not want his identity to be divulged. He feared that if voters made a connection between him and the Republican party, he would be sunk. “It’s a dirty word,” he said.
Another guest was more blunt about Republican prospects in the city. In San Francisco, “if you run for office with an ‘R’ after your name you may as well be accused of baking and roasting and eating children,” said Michael Gallardo, a shop manager, as he prepared a mushroom-and-truffle pizza for the oven. There are, however, signs of change.
Earlier this month Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder of Oracle and one of the original kings of Silicon Valley, held a Republican fundraiser at his home. Tickets started at $1,500, and the headliners included libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul said he thought the event, hosted by Cisco CEO John Chambers and others, netted over $800,000.
“I’ve met with most of the big players, I’ve met with some of the smaller startup folks, and to a person I find that that they think this president sold them a bill of goods,” he said. Paul has been looking into opening an office in Silicon Valley and regularly meets with Peter Thiel, the PayPal billionaire and anti-regulation libertarian who has funded plans to create offshore communities beyond the control of governments.
Also present was Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. He has been to Silicon Valley almost a dozen times in recent years, and touts his support for increasing the number of visas available to high-skilled workers. It’s a pet issue for the tech industry, which hires numerous foreign boffins. “The technology community and the Republicans should be natural allies,” Hatch said. “I think the more the technology community becomes involved in Washington, the more they see the Republicans are on their side on most of the issues they care about.”
While Republicans have visited the Valley before, lately their visibility has increased. “These events are now more public, they used to be very quiet,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “They would come in quietly, have a little meeting with a few people who appreciated them, and leave.”
Indeed the publicity may be a cause for regret, as when Mark Zuckerberg hosted a fundraiser for New Jersey governor Chris Christie last year, prompting protests outside his suburban home over Christie’s defunding of women’s health services. Zuckerberg had previously donated $100m to schools in the New Jersey city of Newark.
‘California is the country’s largest ATM’
At least in electoral terms, the Republicans are hardly contenders in the region. In some districts in Santa Clara County, at the heart of Silicon Valley, there aren’t even any Republicans in the running for seats in the House of Representatives. In the politics of larger California, Democrats have mostly controlled the state legislature for decades. But even if California Republicans can’t expect to sweep the ballot in the midterms, money raised in the state can help the party win battles elsewhere (“California is the country’s largest ATM,” noted Gerston), and for visiting politicians there is a chance to connect with tech constituents on topics that are dear to them and develop a base.
In the summer, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Tom Marino, spoke at the San Jose Silicon Valley chamber of commerce and stopped by companies including eBay and Microsoft. Some of the interest he presents to technologists is as a member of congressional subcommittees on cybersecurity and intellectual property. “It really isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing at all,” said Jim Reed, of the chamber. “It’s about people who get it, who understand what Silicon Valley needs.” Marino said he may return. “Everyone is very kind to me, very accommodating.”
A few in Silicon Valley have also begun taking their message to Republicans in Washington, where their cultivation of well-placed leaders on both sides of the aisle has led them in surprising directions. Last year Zuckerberg and other entrepreneurs launched Fwd.Us, a lobbying group that focuses on immigration reform. To support a Republican lawmaker involved in the debate, its subsidiary ran an ad promoting an oil pipeline and criticising Obamacare, drawing the ire of various progressive organizations and probably many Bay Area liberals. Elon Musk, the manufacturer of eco-friendly Tesla cars, subsequently quit the organisation.
For now, there are sizeable obstacles to Republican efforts in the Valley. Even those with conservative or libertarian views say the party creates problems for itself. There are “some really embarrassing issues”, said entrepreneur Ivan Kirigin. For instance, “I know zero conservative people who think gay marriage should be illegal.”
Hatch, the senator from Utah, acknowledged that social issues such as abortion rights could be sticking points. “That’s what generally causes come of these Silicon Valley people to think that they’re Democrats,” he said. But he proposes that entrepreneurs consider how Republican policies would help their businesses. “When you start talking about what they need, the protections they need, the legislation that they need to make their community really successful, it’s mostly led by us Republicans.”
Alternatively they might look to a strain of the Republican Party exemplified by Neel Kashkari, a former Treasury official who is running for governor in California and is pro-choice and in favour of gay marriage. “I think for lot of folks in the Valley that is a disqualification, if you’re not with them on social issues,” he said in the lobby of a Marriott hotel near the San Francisco airport. He had a fundraiser that evening in the same upscale town where Oracle’s Ellison lives. “But if you’re with them on social issues then they’re very open to your economic ideas.” His include axing California’s high-speed rail project, though polls indicate he has little chance of winning against the popular Democratic incumbent, Jerry Brown.
According to one observer from the GOP, Kashkari and others might be better off campaigning and fundraising outside Silicon Valley, because its denizens are unlikely to embrace Republicanism and do not share Republican values. “Techies aren’t the libertarian heroes of Ayn Rand’s dreams,” wrote Shawn Steel, a California representative on the Republican National Committee, in an editorial for the San Jose Mercury News. “Contrary to the myth, the Silicon Valley isn’t full of individualistic free-market capitalists. Tech companies are largely building wealth from government contracts.”
In an interview he suggested that IT workers were out of touch. “Silicon Valley has become a bubble of gated communities,” he said. “We’re creating a new feudal system in Silicon Valley, where the 1% is isolated, self-isolated.”
At the fundraiser in San Francisco, the anonymity-seeking candidate stood in a living room with Turkish and Persian rugs on the wall and floor, gave a speech to a polite audience, and took questions.
“Do they know you’re a Republican when you campaign?” someone asked. “Some do,” he said. “Some think I’m a Democrat. I’m not going to tell them otherwise.”
This article was written by Alastair Gee in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th October 2014 15.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010