Where have Silicon Valley's Republicans gone?

Venture capitalist Tim Draper was George W. Bush's point man in Silicon Valley. Now he's voting for Barack Obama. And he's not alone: Enthusiasm for John McCain is hard to find.

A correction was made to this story. See below for details.

Calling venture capitalist Tim Draper an ardent Republican is something of an understatement. In 1999, he was enough of a fan of then-candidate George W. Bush that he chaired three fundraisers over a year before the actual election.

Salon once dubbed him "George W.'s point man in Silicon Valley." The Draper, Fisher Jurvetson managing partner is a longtime proponent of limited government, free markets, and libertarian concepts like school vouchers, making him a natural fit for a political party whose platform lauds "lower taxes, reasonable regulation, and smaller, smarter government."

This year, though, something odd happened. Draper gave $2,300--the legal maximum--to Barack Obama and zero to John McCain. Draper also did something that would have been unthinkable in the days when Bush was touting laissez-faire principles: he disclosed publicly that he will vote for a Democrat.

VC Tim Draper, once George W. Bush's point man in Silicon Valley, is now voting for Barack Obama. Draper Fisher Jurvetson

"It's good to have a fresh face," Draper told CNET News on Thursday. "At least from the press, we've seen about six years of fear. I'd like to see six years of opportunity and what that could do for our country, and I think that might happen with Obama."

Draper likes McCain's views on nuclear power and school vouchers, but believes that government spending has run amok in a capital city dominated by Republicans for much of the last decade. Obama, he says, understands that an economic recovery comes from venture capital and entrepreneurship and, overall, "will be a good ambassador for our country."

He's not alone. A review of 2008 campaign contributions show what amounts to a startling number of defections by Silicon Valley leaders well-known for their support of Republican candidates in the past.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett wrote checks to Bush during the last two presidential elections. He's handed $2,300 to onetime candidate Mitt Romney, but nothing to McCain.Lead21, a once-thriving outpost of free-market Republicanism in Silicon Valley, has not updated its blog since April 2007 (though it is holding an election party in San Francisco next Tuesday).

While McCain can count on some prominent Bay area donors--Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy and Intel's Paul Otellini are two--the apparent lack of enthusiasm is telling. One explanation might be that Obama is simply a more attractive candidate than Al Gore or John Kerry. Or it could be a response to the neocon influence in the Republican Party and the fictions that led to U.S. involvement in Iraq. Or, perhaps, is McCain too wishy-washy on taxes and enthusiastic about Internet regulation?

Daniel Ballon, a policy fellow in technology studies at the free-market Pacific Research Institute, believes the shift could be due to how much influence the Democrat-controlled Congress will enjoy over technology companies, especially if the party gains a supermajority.

"I don't think anyone wants to bet too strongly on the wrong horse," Ballon said. "They're looking at how the political winds are moving right now and seeing a strong likelihood of an Obama presidency and a stronger Democratic majority in the Congress. They think supporting the wrong person could come back and hurt them."

The McCain campaign headquarters referred calls on this topic to their West Coast regional director, who did not immediately respond to an interview request.

To be sure, the McCain campaign can count on the endorsements of some of the area's best-known former chief executives. Meg Whitman, who stepped down as eBay's chief executive officer in March, and Carly Fiorina, the chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, are both active in the campaign and spoke at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn. A survey by Chief Executive magazine says 74 percent of executives surveyed said Obama would be a disaster for the country, and a steady stream of criticisms of the Democratic nominee from business leaders have appeared in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Obama, on the other hand, can count a far longer list of endorsements, including Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt (who appeared with liberal talk show Rachel Maddow during the Democratic convention).

A shift toward the Democrats
The apparent political shift isn't limited to McCain and technology executives. In what could prove to be a worrisome sign for the Republican Party's future fundraising and electoral prospects, rank-and-file employees of tech companies seem to feel the same way about Republican candidates more broadly.

Microsoft employees handed 62 percent of their political giving to Democrats in 2004; now it's up to 70 percent. AT&T employees' Democratic support is up from 39 percent to 44 percent--even though it was Republicans who pushed to shield their employer from lawsuits alleging violations of federal wiretapping laws.

McCain received just $1.35 million from industry employees this year, a quarter of Obama's haul. Even Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the limited-government candidate who broke with his party over the Iraq war, received $802,502--a remarkable showing considering that Paul dropped out of the race months ago, while McCain has been ramping up his fundraising solicitations and even sending donors prepaid Fedex envelopes.

Overall, what Opensecrets.org defines as the computer and Internet industry four years ago favored Democrats by a 54 percent margin. Now it's a 64 percent margin, which is a remarkable shift in a short time.

It's difficult to discern exactly what's causing the shift, and far too early to say whether this is a one-time move away from Republicans or something that will continue.

Part of the reason could be a dislike for the growth in federal power including warrantless wiretapping and interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, or the amazing uptick in federal spending (the debt has more than doubled since January 2001).

Another could be that Obama is promising billions in taxes hikes and subsequent government spending on favored projects, including $150 billion over 10 years for "green energy," much of which would flow to solar and biofuel start-ups in Silicon Valley. More favorites: $10 billion a year on healthcare tech, and broadband technologies, raising the question of whether some of the Obama-thusiasm can be explained by what economists like to call "rent seeking."

It could also be that Bush has not made tech topics the same priority that his predecessor did, something that Obama promises to change.

"Even Republican friends of mine who are diehards will say there was just nothing going on there," said Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and an Obama adviser. "No one was home in the White House when it came to tech."

Atkinson acknowledges that if it looked like Republicans would sweep Congress, "you'd see a very different dynamic." He believes that the lack of enthusiasm for McCain also stems from the Arizona senator's mixed record on tech: "McCain is kind of seen as a little bit erratic in terms of people who have had dealings with him in the past on the Commerce committee. They're not sure what he's going to do and where he's going to go."

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, thinks the change has to do with revulsion toward Republicans' spending, combined with their desire to centralize power in Washington. "This group is libertarian in outlook and Democratic in donation," Harper said, referring to Silicon Valley. "More so now that eight years of a Republican administration have brought us war and high-spending government."

For Draper, the venture capitalist, spending plays a role in his vote for Obama. "I've noticed that government spending as a percentage of GNP has grown from something like 7 percent to 43 percent in the last 100 years," he said. "During that time the growth in GNP has gone down from 8 or 9 percent to almost flat. I think those two things are related--more government spending equals less growth."

"There's one other thing I think will be a real positive--I think people will start looking up," Draper said. "They've been bombed with bad news for a long, long time and it spread fear throughout the land, and I think it's time to spread opportunity...And I think that might be the visceral thing in Silicon Valley that they are responding to--it's time to swing back to opportunity. Enough of this fear."

CNET's Stephanie Condon contributed to this report

Correction on November 21: The original version of the story reported that, based on public records searches, Republican party loyalists Floyd Kvamme and Michael Kim did not donate to the McCain campaign. A subsequent search showed that they did.

 

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