Higher Ground Labs

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RECODE: A group of Obama veterans are banding together to invest in tech that can help Democrats win

A group of Obama veterans are banding together to invest in tech that can help Democrats win

The new effort is called Higher Ground Labs, and it’s hoping to help the party in state and local races.

BY TONY ROMM@TONYROMM  MAY 8, 2017, 5:00AM EDT

https://www.recode.net/2017/5/8/15573064/obama-veterans-invest-tech-help-democrats-win-higher-ground-labs

 Hoping to gain new ground after an Election Day disappointment, a group of tech experts who worked with President Barack Obama are banding together to give progressive political candidates a bit of a digital upgrade.

The effort is called Higher Ground Labs, and it aims to invest in new political technologies so that progressive office-seekers at the state and federal levels can tap the same Silicon Valley-style tools that helped Obama and other nationally inclined Democrats win past races.

To Betsy Hoover, a former director of digital organizing for Obama’s 2012 team, the problem is that presidential campaigns invest the greatest time and effort into technology to reach and persuade voters — but that “technology typically dies” after the election season ends. Even so, their software can be difficult to adapt to down-ballot candidates, who are seeking to run for congress or their local state house.

Trouble is, it’s those campaigns that need new digital resources the most — especially at a time when Republicans control both houses of Congress as well as 32 state legislatures. That’s why Hoover, like many in the Democratic Party, is hoping Higher Ground Labs can cover some of the gap by investing in early-stage businesses working at the intersection of politics and technology. That way, she said, “these tools exist outside of campaign structures so that every campaign can use them.”

“The ecosystem around political technology is broken,” Hoover told Recode in an interview on Sunday. “We lack the political capital, the mentorship and the network effect that so many industries benefit from, so we want to be part of that ecosystem.”

Joining her as founders of Higher Ground Labs are Shomik Dutta, who had served on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and advised the FCC, and Andrew McLaughlin, a former deputy chief technology officer for Obama who also has held key roles at Google, Medium and Tumblr.

So far, they’ve got $1 million in capital commitments, though Hoover, a founding partner at the political consulting firm 270 Strategies, won’t say who provided the funding. Still, the group says it has already put some cash toward a startup called Deck, which tries to generate election turnout scores for voters in congressional districts, then forecasts election outcomes.

The board advising Higher Ground Labs, meanwhile, is plucked right from the roster of Obama’s two White House tours. The list includes Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 field director; Jon Favreau, Obama’s speechwriter turned podcaster; Greg Nelson, a former aide on the National Economic Council; and Michael Slaby, the chief technology officer for Obama’s 2008 bid.

Hoover stressed the group’s decision to launch Higher Ground Labs "was not dependent on our outcome in November.” But she said that Donald Trump’s surprise election victory certainly has galvanized progressive activists and campaigners across the country, who are launching political efforts of their own.

There’s Swing Left, for example, an online platform that targets its efforts on unseating Republican members of Congress in toss-up districts. Just last week, Swing Left raised about $500,000 in 24 hours — a large sum for a grassroots push, but a small one in politics — to challenge Republican House lawmakers who voted to scrap Obamacare. Others include Tech for Campaigns, a Bay Area-based effort that tries to match tech engineers with down-ballot progressive candidates in need of some expertise.

Much of this work is happening outside of official Democratic Party headquarters, however, which Hoover sees as a good thing. “The [party’s] committees have a reasonable role to play here,” she said. But, she added: “If you look at other industries, we would never ask for that.”

“Rather, we say innovation happens everywhere, and the best ideas bubble up,” Hoover continued. “We believe in seeding creative, new ideas, and we should take the same approach in politics.”

Betsy Hoover