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Romney and G.O.P. Make Inroads in Silicon Valley

Somini Sengupta, The New York Times|The New York Times
Monday, 8 Oct 2012 | 11:34 AM ET

SAN FRANCISCO — When President Obama makes his latest foray into Silicon Valley on Monday, he will face a technology industry more engaged than ever in the wheeling and dealing of Washington, and much more forthcoming with its political contributions — including, generously, to his rival, Mitt Romney.

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The two candidates, and their parties, have raised more money from technology executives and investors than the candidates and parties did in 2008. Altogether, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have campaigned here numerous times in the last year. And as the stakes for the industry have grown higher in Washington, both candidates have at least acknowledged some of its policy priorities, like immigration overhaul and lowering the corporate tax rate.

But although Mr. Obama is widely seen as a friend of the tech industry — and, with his party, has taken in far more contributions — the excitement associated with his campaign four years ago has diminished here, as it has elsewhere. Mr. Romney and the Republicans have made clear inroads.

By the end of August, Mr. Romney raised $2.04 million, compared with the $1.7 million that John McCain raised over his entire 2008 campaign. He has also tapped the pocketbooks of a few former Obama donors. One is Marc Andreessen, a prominent venture capitalist and Facebookinvestor who supported Mr. Romney’s failed primary bid in 2007, but went on to back Mr. Obama in 2008 with a $4,600 contribution. This year, he put in more than $100,000 for Mr. Romney.

Mr. Andreessen’s office declined to comment for this article, but he, like other tech industry executives, have said they find Mr. Romney’s business background appealing. Others say they are disappointed that the industry’s wish list in Washington remains unfulfilled, pointing, for example, to the unsuccessful effort to raise visa caps for immigrants with math and science degrees.

“This was a man who was elected in 2008 because he understood the power of the Internet,” said Mark Heesen, the president of the National Venture Capital Association, an industry group. “However, as much as the administration has loved the technology innovation agenda, they kind of walk away when you say you have to finance this innovation.”

Robert Nelsen, the managing director of Arch Ventures, based in Seattle, was on Mr. Obama’s national finance committee in 2008. He went to Grant Park in Chicago for the president’s victory party. This year, he contributed to the Romney campaign. He called it a protest vote.

“There needs to be some reaffirmation through words and deeds that engines of innovation are valued,” he said. “I feel like I need to send a message that everything is not O.K.”

The Republicans have been surprisingly adept at fund-raising from the technology industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance, Mr. Romney, his party and associated “super PACs” have raised $8.9 million, compared with $13 million raised by Mr. Obama and his party. Those figures include donations from venture capitalists, though the center says it is impossible to separate who among them invests principally in technology. The overall amount is considerably more than in 2008, partly because of the emergence of the super PACs.

Within that larger pie, the Democrats are winning the battle for individual donors. Mr. Obama raised $5 million from people in the industry, compared with Mr. Romney’s $2 million.

But the Republicans have been particularly successful at tapping Silicon Valley billionaires for related super PACs. Among them are Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and a former Republican candidate for governor; Howard Cox, advisory partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners; and Peter Thiel, another early Facebook investor, who this year gave more than $4 million to conservative super PACs, including to those that backed the failed primary bid of Ron Paul.

Still, taken together, the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign are clearly in the lead when it comes to tech donors. And there are lifelong Republicans here who find Mr. Romney unpalatable either because, in their view, he is socially conservative or because he is too closely aligned with sectors that the industry distances itself from.

“Obama will push the Silicon Valley agenda on immigration, renewables, technology and fairness with China in trade,” said Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who invests in renewable energy and says he is a registered Republican. “Romney is pushing the oil and gas industry agenda.”

To mine that support, the Obama campaign has corralled entrepreneurs and executives under an umbrella organization called Tech4Obama, or T4O, bringing them together in small groups to meet with the president and open their wallets. Executives including Marc Benioffof Salesforce and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook have held five-figure fund-raising dinners in their homes.

Gone are the days, Mr. Thiel said in an interview, when Silicon Valley could remain isolated from the political world. “There’s a mind-set you can have when you’re writing a computer program that there’s you and the computer and nobody else,” Mr. Thiel said. “The reality is you’re still in the State of California, which is in pretty bad shape and you’re also in the United States, which is sort of muddling along. This has repercussions, which may not be immediate.”

Technology companies have also stepped up lobbying in Washington, created political action committees to donate to bipartisan races all over the country and inserted themselves into prominent policy fights — most notably enlisting Mr. Obama to defeat an antipiracy bill that the entertainment industry had sought.

Some of the industry’s pet issues have bubbled up in campaign rhetoric. It may have been unthinkable even four years ago, but both candidates have said they are concerned about cybersecurity, a lucrative area for many Silicon Valley companies. Mr. Obama has said he supports net neutrality; Mr. Romney does not.

The industry’s main priority for the next president is immigration. Both liberals and conservatives here say their sector, unlike most others in the United States, faces an acute shortage of engineers and programmers. In turn, both candidates have spoken in favor of raising the visa caps for math and science graduates. But the partisan divide in Washington has prevented any accord on immigration.

Obama backers here caution that it is unrealistic to expect the president to deliver any one industry’s wish list. Bijan Sabet, an entrepreneur turned investor, described Mr. Obama as a natural ally for technologists like him. He paid $35,800 this summer to sit around the table with Mr. Obama. He left the meeting, he said, with a sense that the president was sincere and not simply saying what the tech industry wanted to hear.

“He believes in start-ups; he believes in the tech community,” Mr. Sabet said of the discussion. “At the same time he was very sober in saying, ‘You folks have to do your part.’ ”

“It wasn’t a pandering session,” he added. “It was a straight-up session.”

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