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Republican political operatives want to sell the dark arts of opposition research to tech companies

A well-wired GOP firm is setting up shop in Silicon Valley to help tech reach conservatives.

Sunrise At US Capitol Mark Wilson / Getty

A team of veteran Republican operatives is taking its talent for under-the-radar political muckraking to an unlikely place: The liberal-leaning, Democratic-donating, Donald Trump-hating tech epicenter of Silicon Valley.

The newest startup setting up shop in the Bay Area is Definers Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that seeks to apply the dark science of political opposition research to the business world. Their mission: To arm companies with ammunition to attack their corporate rivals, sway their government overseers and shape the public’s opinion on controversial issues.

To the GOP-led political venture, Silicon Valley is a natural target for their so-called “oppo” efforts. The tech industry is characteristically hyper-competitive, with boardroom squabbles, takeover attempts, and legal wars over employees and patents and regulations. Definers hopes to supply some of its future tech clients with the gossip, dirt and intel to win those fights.

But the firm’s new Oakland-based operative — Tim Miller, who previously served as communications director to GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush — plans to do it with a decidedly Republican bent.

The region’s tech heavyweights have long struggled to form relationships with GOP candidates and causes, so Miller and crew are pitching a way for those companies to leverage the power — or outrage — of the country’s most influential, vocal conservative groups to defeat their political or corporate enemies.

Given the “spotlight that is on their industry,” Miller told Recode in an interview, the Valley’s biggest brands should invest more to ensure “you have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor, or regulator, or activist groups or activist investors, that are challenging you.”

“There might be some companies that are more willing to engage in that,” Miller said, but “increasingly, as [Silicon Valley] companies mature, I think they may recognize the need to do that.”

Definers launched in 2016 as the brainchild of some of the Republican Party’s most seasoned campaign hands: Matt Rhoades, the former campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, and Joe Pounder, who led research for the Republican National Committee. Already, the firm has aided the likes of Anthem and Cigna, two health insurance behemoths, as they worked quietly to discredit a government official investigating their proposed mega-merger last year.

If that sounds like the stuff of traditional Washington backbiting, that’s because it is: The firm itself is an outgrowth of America Rising, the powerful, official research and attack arm of the Republican Party.

And Miller, for his part, is a veteran of political rabble-rousing, too. A founder of America Rising, he had been one of the chief architects of a push before the 2016 Republican convention to scuttle Trump’s nomination as president.

For now, Definers won’t reveal any of its tech clients, citing the fact it has signed nondisclosure agreements with them. The firm doesn’t officially lobby government officials, Miller said, but its pitch is to help “connect [tech] with the Republican and conservative ecosystem and [help] them with messaging about how to talk to red-state voters.”

That network of right-leaning groups — like the Heritage Foundation, for example, or the American Conservative Union, which produces the annual CPAC conference — historically has been supremely influential among Republican policymakers. The organizations have the power to boost or kill bills in Congress and nominees for key government posts, and when whipped up, they can rally droves of conservative-leaning voters to make noise or take action — online and off.

Of course, tech companies long have tapped their well-stocked public-relations shops to declare war on their rivals — think Microsoft’s legendary battle with Google as the search giant fended off an antitrust probe by the U.S. government.

But Miller’s new post in the Bay Area with Definers could pave the way for a dramatic escalation from those efforts as the hardscrabble stuff of national politics invades a tech industry that has angled to avoid such tactics.

In the eyes of other Republicans, at least, Silicon Valley certainly could use all the help it can get.

“There’s a cultural disconnect between Silicon Valley and red America,” said Alex Conant, a former aide to presidential candidate Marco Rubio who now works as a partner at a GOP-leaning firm, Firehouse Strategies. “They speak different languages, have different values and generally have a different worldview.”

For all their attempts to support Democrats and Republicans in equal measure, the tech industry’s leading players are associated most closely with Democrats. Top executives — like Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent, Alphabet; and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook — have donated frequently and generously to Democratic candidates. And they and others had been staunch allies of former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then channeled their support to Hillary Clinton four years later.

At times, though, those close Democratic ties have stoked conservatives’ worst suspicions. Deep-rooted doubts about the political intentions of Facebook, for example, bubbled to the surface last year following accusations that the social giant had stifled right-leaning news sites from appearing in its “trending news” feed. The arrival of Trump in the White House certainly hasn’t helped the Valley win new Republican allies, either. Instead, the likes of Apple and Facebook have publicly challenged the president’s approach to issues like immigration and climate change.

Even in Trump’s Washington, however, the tech industry retains a robust political agenda. They want or need infrastructure or tax reforms, and they must fend off scrutiny from tech-focused agencies in the still-forming Trump administration.

Enter Miller and his firm Definers, as they try to offer Silicon Valley an edge with conservatives — and reap a business opportunity in the process.

“From an opposition research standpoint, this tension between the companies’ business interest and the employees’ ideology is something that can be exploited by rival companies or people in other industries,” he said, “in order to create a chilling effect any time a tech company wants to more aggressively advocate a more conservative posture.”

That sort of behind-the-scenes political grunt work sound a little foreign in a place like the Bay Area, which long has snubbed such political activities as cynical. Miller, however, sees it as long overdue.

“Tech companies are surprisingly unsophisticated at using the communications tools they created in order to advance their public affairs and communications interests,” he said.

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