When you stroll into Kevin McCarthy’s sprawling Capitol office, the first thing you notice — apart from the pop-art murals — is a basketball hoop fixed to a door. On any given night, after a round of votes, you’ll spot GOP lawmakers missing shots, foam balls bouncing between chairs and iPad-toting staffers. Down the hall, past walls dotted with flat-screen televisions, aides thumb BlackBerry devices. The bustle, the chatter, the pressure — it has the makings of a start-up firm.
And in a way it is. But that’s a recent development. Long skewered as the stuffy PC to the Democrats’ hip Macintosh, Republicans are gaining ground in the digital wars. Twitter, text messages, live chats — you name the social-media tool, and the House GOP is probably using it, not only to win votes, but to legislate.
In a town-hall meeting this afternoon at Facebook headquarters — where he’ll be joined by House majority leader Eric Cantor and budget committee chairman Paul Ryan — McCarthy, the GOP whip, will spread the word to Silicon Valley.
The trio, who call themselves the “young guns,” intend to first discuss their wired work, talking about how it enables transparency and connects constituents to elected officials. But McCarthy tells National Review Online that he sees the Facebook event as more than a chance to champion the House GOP’s newfound digital prowess.
Instead, the congressmen will highlight the party’s commitment to entrepreneurship and economic growth. Those ideas, he predicts, will connect — even with Palo Alto liberals. “The social issues probably divide some people in Silicon Valley, but not the idea of innovation and not the idea that we’re shackling businesses with current tax policies,” McCarthy says.
Talking about Facebook posts will be fun, McCarthy says, but more important will be explaining Republican proposals to increase access to capital and reform regulations. As the economy stumbles, Silicon Valley is ripe for fresh solutions. Technology companies may have weathered the storm better than most, with thousands of new hires over the past year. But growth has been slower than usual, and corporate leaders have noticed. The San Jose Mercury News recently surveyed area CEOs and reported that “they’re running out of patience.”
Not that Obama has given up. Ever since he emerged on the national stage, the president has been a favorite of software tycoons and data analysts. He stopped by Facebook in April for a similar huddle with hotshot engineers, then held a virtual town hall on Twitter over the summer. And while McCarthy and friends are at Facebook, the president will be nearby at LinkedIn — an online community for career networking — holding a town hall with employees.
Bring on the battle, McCarthy says. “I think it’ll be a great contrast,” he tells me. “As Ronald Reagan said, fly your bold colors, no pastels. Let’s show the true difference between our policies and [Obama’s] policies.”
The young guns’ stop, he notes, is one of many that leading Republicans have made in the tech mecca. Speaker John Boehner trekked to the region in May to woo executives. Cantor recently spoke at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and led an economic roundtable. McCarthy, a California representative, is a frequent visitor.
For the moment, McCarthy says, Obama remains popular in the deep-blue valley, but he’s no Mark Zuckerberg. The president has lingering buzz, but his long-term hold on area voters, and especially tech brass, is uncertain. After months of private talks with business leaders within key Silicon Valley blocs, McCarthy says Obama’s economic policies have created a real opening for Republicans to offer an alternative.
And the GOP is ready to meet that challenge, he says. At one time, toting the right gadget, engaging bloggers, or uploading a slick video was enough. Now, McCarthy says, the message is as important as the medium.
Republicans gained notice in 2010 for promoting two much-clicked tech products: YouCut, an online program soliciting user input on spending cuts, and America Speaking Out, an interactive policy forum. McCarthy fondly recalls the latter, which helped build the GOP’s “Pledge to America,” but says that the party cannot rest on its laurels, content to simply refresh the same websites and video projects.
New tablet offerings are in the works. Facebook feeds, McCarthy says, are being used in GOP conference meetings to gauge constituent response to legislation. Twitter is a constant. “Instead of broad brush, we can fine tune,” he adds. The rest of the party is catching on. House Republicans routinely hold internal competitions between offices over who can best use YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
According to a January study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, House Republicans’ efforts are part of a trend. During the last presidential campaign, only 29 percent of Republican voters were active on social-networking websites, compared to 44 percent of Democrats. By 2010, when the GOP swept the House, Republicans were just as likely as Democrats to be using such sites.
McCarthy sees the numbers rising. “You can have the best social media today but be far behind a month from now, so it’s a continuum,” he says. Democrats, of course, are also sharpening their social-media game, so today he wants to pick up a few tips. Republicans’ fortunes may be rising in the Bay Area, but they’re far from being heroes, or even liked. At best, they’ll get a fair hearing.
For McCarthy, that’s enough. “To me, it’s always about learning, and [the competition] gives me a great deal of excitement because it hits my entrepreneurial drive,” he says. “I can take these things to Congress, to open it up more, and also see where America is going, asking where we can be of assistance, seeing where we can knock down barriers.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.