Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

How One Group is Training Tech-Savvy Conservatives

BY Matt Taylor | Tuesday, October 9 2012

Morton Blackwell addresses students at the Leadership Institute earlier this year. Photo: Courtesy Leadership Institute

Before Ted Cruz could woo the party faithful with a primetime speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, he had to overcome being outspent three-to-one to win his party's nod to become the next U.S. senator from Texas.

Cruz's operatives ran a focused, digitally sophisticated campaign.

At one point, opponent David Dewhurst, the incumbent lieutenant governor, was under attack for his views on immigration. The text of speeches where he touted what some conservatives would call "amnesty" began to disappear from his official website, presenting would-be muckrakers with a 404 error page. Cruz operatives like Deputy State Field Director Nick Dyer started pumping out tweets using the hashtag "#404gate" — just one of the daily social-media skirmishes that have become common in modern campaigns.

After kicking things off with a blogger conference call, Cruz staffers stayed in regular touch with conservative voices throughout the race. They used web video, online ads, and rapid response on social media. In the run-up to Election Day, the campaign sent email blasts to supporters targeted by their geographic location in the state.

Immediately after Cruz's victory, his consultants opened up about many of these digital highlights. But they didn't reveal that some of the lessons applied in his win came from a wellspring that many Republican candidates and operatives share: The Leadership Institute, known most recently for its role in shaping the early career of conservative provocateur James O'Keefe.

Launched in 1979 and based in Arlington, Va., it has traditionally served as an outlet for college Republicans and a supporter of conservative college newspapers, like O'Keefe's Rutgers Centurion — but the Institute also trains conservatives in organizing techniques. It began conducting online trainings long before Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign signaled the arrival of a robust role for the Internet in politics.

The swath of ambitious conservatives who cut their teeth at the Institute, which trains between 9,000 and 12,000 people a year, includes major names like Karl Rove and tax-pledge enforcer Grover Norquist. These days, it also includes digital operatives like Dyer. Cruz's digital strategist, Vincent Harris, has taught Institute sessions, as have a cross-section of the right's online politicos, including professionals at well-known firms like CRAFT and Engage. And since 2010, the Leadership Institute has also partnered with the Tea Party Patriots to provide basic social media training to their members, in the hopes of a rising conservative tide to lift all boats.

"A key lesson I learned from L.I. was that political success over time is determined by the number of effective activists on each side of a campaign," says Josh Perry, Cruz's digital director. "Our digital operation provided us an extremely cost-effective way to reach out and mobilize our supporters."

The Cruz campaign has a higher profile than most, with tactics that are a bit more advanced. Harris described teaching classes focused on tools like Twitter, WordPress blogs and Facebook. Another instructor, Matt Braynard, a Washington, D.C. digital strategist and a former political analyst with the Republican National Committee, described laying down the basics of online fundraising, like how to set up a merchant bank account in order to process credit card donations.

But the Institute is also making sure that a new crop of Republican consultants, whether they're supporting a city council candidate or a would-be senator, have basic digital skills, says Tim Cameron, a digital strategist at CRAFT Media/Digital.

"First time candidates that are coming through the Leadership Institute on a regular basis, a lot of them aren't on campaigns that have big budgets," Cameron said. "A lot of these people that come to Leadership Institute, all they really need is a few good ideas, and there's a lot of smart people that come through there."

An overview of email marketing, social media, online video and online advertising is all they need, Cameron said. "A lot of these guys, in these local races, they have an opportunity to treat those local campaigns as a Petri dish."

The Institute's outreach to the Tea Party appears to be more limited. The trainings can cost as little as $15 to attend, but focus, attendees say, on basics like Twitter and Facebook. So it might be that the Institute isn't changing the game online so much as making sure more conservatives get to play.

"No other organization has made more of a difference in teaching political technology to conservatives," says Michael Krempasky, a co-founder of the popular conservative blog RedState and a digital strategist in Washington.

Founded and still led by Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell, the Institute's digital trainings also signal an attempt by this key part of the conservative infrastructure to adapt to a changing political landscape.

"I think they're a little antiquated, and some of their trainings are outdated," said Dina Fraioli, a Republican media strategist and RedState contributor. "They used to be the only voice out there to train candidates, and train people for elections and campaigns. If they didn't adapt, I think they would've totally been wiped out."

Ted Cruz's speech at the Republican convention signaled the arrival of a deeply conservative new senator with Tea Party credentials and the continued influence of the Republican Party's rightmost flank. But the party and its attendant institutions — the Leadership Institute included — are all reacting to a shift not only in the ideology of their membership but also in the relationship with their grassroots, with large-dollar funders and independent groups increasingly taking the lead.

What digital skills to highlight for the next wave of Republican consultants is probably not the foremost question on the minds inside the Leadership Institute, but it's certainly worth noting the program at a centerpiece of the right's political farm-team system.

"The technology is being absorbed in all aspects of what we teach," says Abigail Alger, the Institute's digital communications director. "We're not focused on the bright and shiny catchphrase of the day. We're very long-term."

Matt Taylor is a techPresident contributing writer.

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

More