Following the announcement that Mike Pompeo, who had held the House seat in Kansas’s Fourth Congressional District since 2011, would assume the role of CIA director in Donald Trump’s administration, the state of Kansas announced the special election on January 24 and slated it for April 11.
The race was not expected to be close. Ron Estes, the Republican candidate, had the backing of Trump, Mike Pence, and Ted Cruz; Trump had taken the district by 27 points in the presidential election in November. At the start of the election, the democratic candidate, James Thompson, a Wichita-based civil rights lawyer, told his team that he would consider it a victory if they lost by 20 points. But on April 11, the closing polls showed that Thompson missed the seat by just 8 points.
What happened to turn a blood-red conservative district into a “Lean Republican” one? Many factors–from Trump’s more recent low approval ratings, to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s atrocious standing in the state, to intense motivation for Democrats–all combined to make the district a potential harbinger of what might come during the 2018 midterm elections. And helping Thompson capitalize was a new Silicon Valley initiative called Tech for Campaigns.
Following the election, three tech industry veterans–Jessica Alter, Peter Kazanjy, and Ian Ferguson–teamed up to launch Tech for Campaigns (TFC), a platform that connects liberal and progressive campaigns with web developers, designers, social experts, and data specialists, who offer assistance and expertise free of charge. “It’s a skilled volunteer engine for the left,” Alter tells Fast Company.
TFC got involved with the Kansas special election around six weeks before the polls opened, and deployed a team of Silicon Valley-based experts to help boost engagement. It worked: TFC brought in a marketing pro and a social media expert to do audience segmentation and targeted outreach through Thompson’s Facebook and Twitter channels. Thompson’s Facebook page followers rose from 1,300 to over 10,000, and the average likes per post spiked from 20 to around 600. Engagement rates were 15 times greater that those among Estes’s base.
The blue-ing of traditionally red districts is not attributable to tech involvement alone; TFC did not work on the special election in Georgia, where Democrat and documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff has pushed a historically Republican district toward a runoff in June, signaling a more fundamental shift in the political landscape in many parts of the country. (Ossoff’s campaign was, however, bolstered by Flippable, an organization that uses a data-driven approach to try to flip districts blue.) TFC’s organizers intend for their platform to help carry out and sustain those shifts as they happen, and to help reclaim some of the over 900 seats that Democrats have lost at the state level since 2009.
Down-ballot elections–like those for congressional seats or local office–are where change begins, Ferguson tells Fast Company, but those campaigns are often run on a shoestring budget, hovering around $1 million, as compared to the around $1 billion shelled out for presidential campaigns. “Often, they’re run by four or five people, who don’t necessarily have the in-house tech or digital expertise that a lot of folks in our networks do,” Ferguson says. TFC, Alter adds, has been working with races in Virginia, which is in the midst of a statewide election cycle. Trent Armitage, the executive director of Virginia’s House Democratic Caucus, told Alter that TFC has equipped candidates with resources and skills they would not otherwise have been able to access. “That was a real “aha” moment for us–realizing that we can step up and provide these skills,” Ferguson says.
Frustration was what united the three TFC founders: After the election, they were confronted with a lack of opportunities to put their specific skills to work in politics. But while she was on a run, Alter was hit with an idea that she immediately texted to Kazanjy, a close friend of hers from the San Francisco tech scene: What if they formed an organization that gave potential politicians expertise on data, social media, and performance marketing, instead of just throwing money at them? Kazanjy was immediately on board, and Ferguson joined soon after, having been introduced to Alter through a mutual friend.
After the inauguration, the founders circulated an informal Google doc through their networks to gauge interest among potential volunteers. In the first 72 hours, they had 700 people sign up to assist campaigns. The volunteer pool has since grown to over 3,000 tech-industry professionals, 60% of whom have never been involved in politics apart from voting or donating to campaigns.
The outpouring of enthusiasm, Alter says, comes from the same feeling that for her and her cofounders resulted in TFC: the desire to get involved in politics in a substantial, tangible way. For volunteers, working on a campaign does not require that they quit their day job or become the de facto tech staff for the duration of the campaign–volunteer assignments are given out on a project basis, and can be completed remotely. “Oftentimes, we’ll have multiple teams of volunteers embedded within the same campaign, working on multiple projects,” he says. “One group will be working on social, the other will be building a web site. The two teams will work in concert with each other, but separately, and over discrete periods of time.” If volunteers want to remain involved in the campaign past the completion of their original project, they also have that option.
The TFC founders speak to every campaign they work with to assess their needs, and they also keep a thorough volunteer database that records both skills and other factors that could contribute to what campaigns they’re placed on. Alter says they make a special effort to connect volunteers with campaigns in their home state or districts, if possible. “It’s a way to help reconnect people that are not necessarily living in those places anymore, but still feel a sense of duty to help,” Alter says.
While the volunteer base continues to grow organically in the tech industry, Alter says the organization is using this off-cycle year to position itself to assist in upcoming state elections, and continue outreach to campaigns. TFC currently has 18 volunteer teams deployed across 12 campaigns and caucuses; for 2018, they’re anticipating they’ll have several hundred teams working across the country.
For the three startup veterans behind TFC, the foray into politics has been surprisingly intuitive. “The way I describe campaigns in general is that they’re sort of like startups that just don’t have a dedicated digital team. They’re all doing a million jobs, and running a million miles an hour–we get the pace, and we can fill that missing aspect.”