Excerpted From Recode: 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 Kazanjy, 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.
“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.” Keep reading