There's long been a disconnect between Silicon Valley and the conservative political world.
Right-leaning political campaigns have struggled to embrace new technologies, and many right-leaning tech workers are hesitant to express themselves politically in the liberal Bay Area.
But this summer, two Bay Area "conservatarian" technologists are hoping to bridge that gap with a right-leaning national gathering in the heart of left-of-center San Francisco, The San Francisco Chronicle has learned.
One of their goals is to create a right-leaning community similar to Netroots Nation -- the influential gathering of liberal bloggers and online activists that was born in the Bay Area eight years ago.
Scheduled for July 18-20, the goal of "Lincoln Labs Conference 2014: Reboot" is to link the tech savvy of Silicon Valley with the political needs of conservative and libertarian -- or "conservatarian" -- America. Organizers hope to assemble 300 A-listers in politics, tech and the nonprofit world. There will be a hackathon designed to solve the wonky problems of campaign life, like how to sync databases.
"The overall theme for this conference is 'Less talk, more action,' " said conference co-founder Garrett Johnson, 29, co-founder of the Menlo Park startup SendHub and once a staffer for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. With Aaron Ginn, 26, he co-founded the digital consulting firm Lincoln Labs.
"All of these (campaign) issues can be solved or at least addressed with technology," Johnson said. "But there is a limited experience and a low level of collaboration between those who have the problems and the libertarian and conservative-leaning technologists who have the ability to solve those problems."
In the Republican political autopsy of the 2012 election season titled the "Republican Growth and Opportunity Project," the Republican National Committee acknowledged the GOP lagged behind Democrats in online skills.
"Digital can simply no longer be an afterthought in our campaigns. It has to be embedded in every function and backed up with appropriate staffing and funding," the postmortem read.
Johnson and Ginn have established themselves as rising stars in the libertarian tech world, and are poster boys for the kind of tech talent the GOP is seeking to boost its digital presence.
At last month's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, the pair's Lincoln Labs hosted "a carnival for liberty" - a massive laser-tag party that attracted thousands. Over the past year, they've hosted several hackathons around the country focused on libertarian economic themes.
The pair has been lauded by and mixing with top echelon conservative leaders, including libertarian hero Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; right-leaning funders the Koch brothers; and Andy Barkett, the former Facebook and Google engineer tapped by the Republican National Committee as its first chief technology officer. "I would love to get all of the Aaron Ginns in the world on board," Barkett said shortly after being hired last year.
Not a GOP Event
While right-leaning, the conference is not a Republican-branded event -- a move organizers hope will lure more techies.
The pair saw the disconnect between tech and conservative politics up close a few weeks ago when they held an event at the California Republican Party conference in Burlingame in which startups pitched ideas to a room full of GOP operatives. It was like the participants were speaking two different languages.
"When startups were presenting their ideas, there was this gap. People who were consultants were saying, 'I just really don't get what you do,' " Ginn said. "But it's not like they weren't interested."
It was more of a language barrier -- one that Johnson knows all too well. The former Capitol Hill staffer moved from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley in 2012 when his company went through Y Combinator, the highly regarded firm that incubates tech startups.
"I didn't have a technology background, I didn't have a startup background. So 85 percent of the conversations I was in, I had no idea what people were saying because it was completely a different language," Johnson said.
But other digital strategists warn that this outreach has to be more than translating tech-speak or playing with the latest digital tools.
"You can have the best tools, but if the candidate isn't any good, then it really doesn't matter," said David Almacy, former White House Internet and digital communications director for President George W. Bush.
Another challenge, according to Almacy: Campaigns must have their digital presence ready to go within just weeks. To address that, the GOP is trying to identify and vet a number of digital consultants who can help with campaigns in the next couple of years.
Creating a "conservatarian" answer to Netroots Nation won't be easy -- other activists have tried and failed to do so in the past. Netroots Nation, which grew out of the Daily Kos blog, drew 1,000 activists to its first convention in 2006. Organizers expect 3,000 to attend its gathering in Detroit this summer.
A key to Netroots Nation's success has been its connection to a specific online community. Lincoln Labs doesn't have a pre-established online community to pull from -- and even if it did, getting techie libertarians to come out of the woodwork might be a challenge.
"Most of the people I know who are libertarian in the tech world think that work is work, and that their views are their views, and they don't mix the two," said Netroots Nation Executive Director Raven Brooks.
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle