Can Venture Capital-Funded Tech Startups Help Democrats Win Local Races?

Written by Dana Sanchez

A group of Obama veterans has formed Higher Ground Labs, a new fund designed to invest in technology that can help Democrats win state and local races using the same Silicon Valley-style tools that helped Obama and other national-level Democratic candidates win past races, Recode reported.

The group will be led by Betsy Hoover, former online organizing director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign; Shomik Dutta, private equity executive and former Obama White House special assistant; and Andrew McLaughlin, Obama White House deputy chief technology officer and a former top official at tech companies including Google and Tumblr.

“Innovation happens everywhere, and the best ideas bubble up,” Hoover told Recode. “We believe in seeding creative, new ideas, and we should take the same approach in politics.”

The advisory board for Higher Ground Labs “is plucked right from the roster of Obama’s two White House tours,” Recode reported. It includes Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 field director; Jon Favreau, Obama’s speechwriter-turned-podcaster; Greg Nelson, a former aide on the National Economic Council; and Michael Slaby, the chief technology officer for Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Some Republican backers such as the Koch brothers have invested in long-term tech and data projects for a wide range of candidates for years, Politico reported. After Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, many Democrats concluded that they need to focus more on lower-profile races.

With Republicans controlling both the legislative and executive branches, Democrats and other progressives hope to shift the balance at local levels and at the next mid-term elections.

Higher Ground Labs says it has already secured $1 million in commitments from undisclosed investors, and has backed a forecasting startup, Axios reported:

Local elections can have more direct impact on people’s lives than national ones, Voter CEO Hunter Scarborough told Axios in January.

Voter is a Tinder-like app for picking political candidates, according to Fast Company. It matches users with political candidates that share their ideology. Scarborough was inspired to create Voter because even though he considered himself politically engaged, he found it difficult to make sense of all the information coming at him from the media.

Of all political campaigns, presidential campaigns invest the most time and effort in technology to reach and persuade voters, Hoover said in a Recode interview. But that “technology typically dies” after election season. Their software can be difficult to adapt to down-ballot candidates seeking office in Congress or their local state house:

Trouble is, it’s those campaigns that need new digital resources the most — especially at a time when Republicans control both houses of Congress as well as 32 state legislatures. That’s why Hoover, like many in the Democratic Party, is hoping Higher Ground Labs can cover some of the gap by investing in early-stage businesses working at the intersection of politics and technology. That way, she said, “these tools exist outside of campaign structures so that every campaign can use them.”

“The ecosystem around political technology is broken,” Hoover told Recode in an interview on Sunday. “We lack the political capital, the mentorship and the network effect that so many industries benefit from, so we want to be part of that ecosystem.”

Donald Trump’s surprise election victory has galvanized progressive activists, Hoover told Recode. Campaigners across the country are launching political efforts, and a lot of it is happening outside of official Democratic Party headquarters, which Hoover said is a good thing.

For example, Tech for Campaigns, tries to match tech engineers, product marketers and others with down-ballot progressive candidates in need of some tech expertise. With the slogan “Take back the House,” Swing Left is an online platform that seeks to unseat Republican members of Congress in toss-up districts. Swing Left claims to have 300,000 volunteers around the country and last week raised about $500,000 in 24 hours to challenge Republican House lawmakers who voted to overturn Obamacare.

 

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