GOP struggles to attract tech and cyber talent

An "Aha" moment led a Congressional staffer to try to convince the GOP to up its flagging tech game.
An "Aha" moment led a Congressional staffer to try to convince the GOP to up its flagging tech game.

In early 2013, Nathan Leamer, a congressional staffer working on the Hill, had an “Aha” moment. He was reading an article about the self-imposed challenges that the GOP faced when attempting to launch cohesive, tech-savvy campaign strategies. Many of the experts quoted were frustrated millennials like himself who felt isolated within the Republican establishment for believing that technology was a central priority for the GOP. That experience was enough to convince him to try to affect change on the GOP from outside of the Hill.

Leamer is now a policy analyst at R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative and libertarian think tank. Despite the best efforts of Leamer and his millennial colleagues, the GOP continues to face difficulties recruiting tech talent. As these tech-savvy pros see it, the problem may stem less from an inability to recruit talent, and more from a lack of interest within the party.

For example, last week, a report published by the Online Trust Alliance (OTA) demonstrated that 74 percent of the 23 presidential campaign sites for 2016 did not meet sufficient standards on privacy, security and consumer protections. According to a recent poll by CBS News/New York Times, Republican frontrunners Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio all received failing grades on their ability to secure and protect the personal data of online donors.

Interestingly, Scott Walker's now defunct campaign, which was led by tech wunderkind Matt Oczkowski, received high marks. When Walker suspended his campaign last month, it was expected that Oczkowski and his team would be immediately hired by one of the remaining candidates. Matthew Del Carlo, chairman of the California Young Republican Federation (YRF), told SCMagazine.com he is surprised that Oczkowski hasn't yet been hired by another campaign or even a super PAC. Del Carlo said, “There are still a lot of people in the internal power structure who say, ‘TV, print, and radio are still the way to go'.”

It's difficult to understate the missed opportunity that Oczkowski represents for Republicans. Hillary Clinton continues to be plagued by cybersecurity woes. Her campaign also received low marks in the OTA report, and an AP report recently rated the State Department as one of the least secure federal agencies while Clinton was secretary. Notably, the State Department's cybersecurity program under Clinton received significantly lower marks than the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Clinton's team is missing a pro with serious cybersecurity chops, a weakness that any serious Republican candidate would want to exploit, but one that thus far no current candidate has made a focus.

But the former Secretary of State has recognized the digital weak spot in her campaign, and has taken pains to build a strong infrastructure. She hired Stephanie Hannon, an ex-Googler who also worked at Facebook and Cisco. Clinton's campaign also has spent heavily on The Groundwork, a mysterious stealth-mode startup backed by Eric Schmidt.

This is not the first time that Republicans have struggled internally to convince party elders to take tech seriously. After ORCA – Mitt Romney's mobile-optimized web application self-destructed – the GOP launched a self-reflexive assessment of the digital capabilities of Republican campaigns. The result, the Growth and Opportunity Project, appeared encouraging.

In February 2014, the Republican National Committee (RNC) launched a data engineering initiative called Para Bellum Labs. The effort, which involved an awkward launch and a poorly chosen name, became a PR disaster for the group.

“It just seemed forced,” Leamer said of Para Bellum Labs. He called the initiative an example of the Republicans' “missionary” approach, as opposed to “naturally engaging these communities.”

“Democrats don't treat this population differently,” Leamer said, noting that Republican overtures to the tech community in contrast appear stilted. “The tech community and millennials can really spot that inauthenticity.”

Republican candidates' political rhetoric has further alienated tech professionals from the party. For example, Ted Cruz wrote on Twitter that “Net neutrality is ‘Obamacare for the Internet'”. Conservative groups have argued that proponents of patent reform are against the Constitution.

“No one in the tech space takes comments like that seriously,” Leamer told SCMagazine.com.

Matthew Del Carlo at the California YRF, said tech entrepreneurs are aligned with the GOP on economic initiatives, but not on social policy. He says conversations with the tech community have been less strained following the Supreme Court's Marriage Equality decision. “But we as a party need to have a dialogue with the tech community,” Del Carlo said. “Not just every election cycle, but yearlong.”

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