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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.

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