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How Silicon Valley is trying to topple Trump — beginning with a special election in Montana

U.S. President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with first lady Melania Trump

Roughly two months before voters would head to ballot box in Montana, Jessica Alter received a request: Could she recruit some tech experts to help a Democratic office-seeker — once viewed as a long-shot candidate — win a seat in the U.S. Congress?

In the shadow of President Donald Trump, the team behind Rob Quist, a guitar-toting first-timer in the hunt for Montana's sole spot in the House of Representatives, had finally started hitting its stride. Increasingly, Quist was generating headlines — and raking in some much-needed cash — despite the fact that Trump had carried his state by about 20 percentage points last November.

For all his gains, though, Quist didn't exactly have a whole lot of help from the Democratic Party's official organs, and like many down-ballot races for Congress, his campaign didn't have an overwhelming amount of tech expertise on staff, either. So Quist's consultants turned to the likes of Alter, a Bay Area resident, who has labored since January to link digitally savvy tech types — many still reeling after Trump's election victory — to progressive candidates and causes.

Quist's tough gamble in Montana is now one of a series of races aided by Tech for Campaigns, a group that Alter formed with one of her friends, Pete Kanzajy, in the fraught early hours of Trump's presidency. Their goal: To serve as a conduit of sorts between Democratic office-seekers in desperate need of some quick digital talent and the engineers and designers in San Francisco and the country's other tech hubs, many of whom are new to politics but increasingly eager to help out in any way they can.

Alter devised the idea to launch Tech for Campaigns while out for a run near San Francisco. She had just returned to the United States after a five-month world tour meant to celebrate the sale of her startup FounderDating, a LinkedIn of sorts for entrepreneurs, and she found herself immensely frustrated with Trump's early efforts in office.

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"The first travel ban, the Muslim ban, put me over the edge, candidly because my father's family was in the Holocaust, and my grandmother was very active in the Belgian underground," Alter told me. "And I just imagined, what would she do?"

Fast forward to Thursday, and Tech for Campaigns has amassed a network of volunteers that numbers at nearly 3,000. There are digital, data analytics and design experts from companies like Facebook and Netflix and Slack and Salesforce in the group's digital rolodex, and even in an off-election year, they've offered small chunks of their time to help state candidates in Virginia, a federal office-seeker in Kansas and now, Quist in Montana, where voters are heading to the polls today. In Quist's race, the volunteers placed by Tech for Campaigns helped his team write, test and target Facebook ads. And they got the Democratic candidate up and running with newer tools for communicating with his organizers and voters via text message.

Quist, ultimately, could lose in the special election to his GOP opponent, former tech executive Greg Gianforte. Some polls, at least, show Quist is behind. (Then again, the state of play shifted dramatically last night, after Gianforte attacked a reporter who tried to ask him a question.)

Still, Alter told Recode that she and her ever-expanding network of Trump-rattled tech volunteers have their sights on 2018 and beyond, as Democrats look to win more seats in Congress — and compete more aggressively in statewide races that may have been neglected in recent years.

"I think he was sort of a wakeup call," Alter said during one of our conversations, weeks before the Montana special election. "We do have this very large group of people who are interested in being involved, and the biggest travesty ... is there just hasn't been great resources for Democrats on the tech side that are available to a lot of people."

Tech for Campaigns is just one of many offshoots of the so-called "resistance" — that flood of millennial-dominated outfits that are trying to fight Trump, and in the process bring a Silicon Valley sensibility to the Democratic Party. There's Swing Left, for example, which has sought to raise money in crucial congressional districts in a bid to topple Republicans. Resistbot hit the scene this year in an effort to help voters more seamlessly communicate their political views with elected officials. And Higher Ground Labs is a new attempt by some of former President Barack Obama's digital aides to invest in cutting-edge campaign tech startups.

"It definitely feels like a seminal moment, and I've been organizing people in the tech community for longer than just about anyone," said Catherine Bracy, whose tours of duty include the Obama campaign, Code for America and the TechEquity Collaborative, which advocates for tech companies to play more socially and politically responsible roles in San Francisco.

In an interview, Bracy recalled exiting a meeting along the Embarcadero one day earlier this year "and seeing a crowd of Google employees chanting and waving protest signs. And I knew then this was something different."

The rapid proliferation of political startups even led well-known Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway to prepare a memo for investors who are eyeing whether, or where, to put their money. "To be most effective we think the donor community will need to adopt a portfolio approach, investing in a range of efforts across different aspects of the problems facing our country," he wrote in the April note obtained by Recode.

For Alter, Kanzajy and the Tech for Campaigns team, their strategy is to plug volunteers into established Democratic campaigns that ask for help on a project or two. They've already focused some of their earliest efforts in Virginia, which is holding an off-year election for its state legislature. Nationally, they previously set their sights on Kansas, where Republicans nearly blew it in a special House election once thought to be an easy GOP win. There, TFC paired up employees from Slack, Salesforce and LendingTree with Democratic candidate James Thompson's campaign, and together, they worked on areas like digital advertising, particularly on social media, meant to woo new voters and get them out to vote.

"Without that team," Alter said, "they wouldn't have really had a full Facebook paid [advertising] program."

For Quist's bid in Montana, the volunteers placed by Tech for Campaigns hailed from companies like Thumbtack and Netflix, and they've similarly aided the Democratic candidate with his Facebook presence. Another team helped Quist's campaign get familiar with Hustle. It's a powerful text-message-based organizing tool used with great success by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election. In the eyes of many campaign tech experts, it's particularly effective for encouraging fickle young voters to remember to cast their votes on Election Day. And it was "a totally new tool for them," Alter said. "No one on the team had used it."

Leading that project was volunteer Krishna Esteva, the head of banking for Nerdwallet. In an email, he told Recode that his cohort sought to leverage text messages to get voters talking and interacting with the Quist campaign. By testing "different types of messages and emojis we were able to increase action rates further," he said. "The campaign immediately saw value, and even brought on a full-time staffer from the [Democratic National Committee] to take the reins."

At Tech for Campaigns and the myriad groups that share its sentiments, the stakes are greater than any one race. Many Democratic political activists saw Hillary Clinton's failed 2016 presidential bid as a perfect illustration that their party wasn't using technology effectively — and had failed manifestly at devoting the right resources to local and state contests.

The numbers bear that out. Republicans aren't just running the show in both the U.S. House and Senate: They also currently control the legislatures in 32 states, while Democrats hold the majority in 14. Those political bodies are critically important, not only because they craft policy in health, education, housing and energy — they also play a role in drawing the lines for federal congressional districts. Meanwhile, Republicans hold the keys to the governor's mansion in 33 states, while Democrats can claim 16. (Alaska is run by an independent.)

It's not to say that all is rotten. "The Democrats have invested in digital and technology and data for longer than Republicans have," said Betsy Hoover, a partner at 270 Strategies who advised Obama and now serves as the co-founder of Higher Ground Labs. So too, however, have Republicans, she said — meaning Democrats have to "step up our game in order to maintain the edge we have built and we're losing ground on."

Of course, the party has plenty of other soul-searching to do. "I would never argue that tech is a panacea," Alter acknowledged before the Montana race entered its final week. But she said there's still plenty of opportunity for tech types, including herself, to "put their skills where their outrage was."

"A lot of people felt galvanized and wanted to do something," she said, "and didn't think there was anything meaningful to do."

By Tony Romm, Recode.net.

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