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Can a New GOP Tech Marketplace Outpace Democrats?

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, April 4 2013

There's a new entrant into the milieu of Republican firms hoping to modernize the party.

Earlier this week, former National Republican Senatorial Committee Digital Director Alex Skatell and former Republican Governors Association Executive Director Phil Musser pulled the lid off their new company, MGA Holdings, a three-headed digital hydra that houses a creative agency, a niche media property, and a software development firm.

Skatell, who moved to the NRSC after working for the RGA, says his company "Gravity" is working to build the voter data management program Republicans badly needed in 2012. Republicans plan to make the data they have on voters more accessible by providing application programming interfaces. This would allow third-party developers to build applications that send and receive data from the Republican trove of information. "Gravity" — which, in what Skatell says is an unfortunate coincidence, shares its name with software Tea Party groups used to direct volunteers going door-to-door in the field last year — is supposed to do that, when it's built, offering a user interface for campaigns who want to manage volunteers and voters.

The Republican Party uses an organization called Data Trust to manage the inflow and outflow of data on voters, and software called GOP Data Center to serve as an interface to that data. "Gravity" would be among the first of a new class of programs that would offer an alternative view into that data, not competing for the Republican Party's business when it comes to data storage, but competing in a whole new marketplace for business from campaigns.

"Our goal is to help campaigns organize and collect data that's siloed, and we hope to connect to the Data Trust API when they have that ready to help enrich the data that these campaigns can look at," Skatell told me.

This is a different marketplace than what the Democrats have. The Democrats' primary vendor for data storage, NGP VAN, does offer API access so that some clients can build their own applications that go above and beyond what NGP VAN's own software allows. However, operatives say, that is only limited to a few of the largest clients.

It's possible that if the GOP succeeds in opening up API access to its voter data, and companies like Gravity launch useful products, then the Republican Party could develop a larger suite of tools than Democrats have to distribute volunteers, contact voters, and make decisions based on voter behavior. But those are big "ifs" — the API hasn't launched, and neither has Gravity.

Separate from Gravity, Skatell and Musser have also launched a creative firm, Imge, with former quant Ryan Coyne, videographer Lucas Baiano, and designer and Romney for America alumni Jorge Gonzalez, among others. A third firm owns the website IJReview.com.

Skatell says not to expect much noise from him until these companies start to build a portfolio. He expects Gravity to have customers using it by the end of this quarter. But with the plans in motion, he said, he wanted to at least make it known what he was doing.

"I really just want to build and let the product speak for itself for the most part," he told me. "I think we'll go pretty much radio silent after this until we've got something that people are excited about."

MGA is one of a small group of new tech-focused firms built by Republican operatives hoping to fill what they see as unmet needs. Another, Empower Action Group, launched by digital operatives Patrick Ruffini, Katie Harbath, and Chad Barth, is raising money to provide digital training to a new generation of campaigners.