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This group of Obama alums has raised $2.5 million to improve Democrats’ tech tools

Higher Ground Labs, which will add Obama aide Ron Klain as chairman, will announce the first crop of campaign-tech companies it plans to support.

Obama Meets With Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain  At White House
President Barack Obama and Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

A startup incubator launched by some of former President Barack Obama’s top tech aides is ramping up its efforts to raise money and invest in new, cutting-edge digital tools meant to help Democrats win more races in 2018 and beyond.

The group, called Higher Ground Labs, plans to announce on Thursday that it has tapped Ron Klain, the executive vice president and general counsel of Revolution, to serve as chair of the nascent organization’s advisory board. Like others involved in the effort, first reported by Recode in May, Klain had been a major aide to Obama, at one point serving as the former president’s top adviser handling the global Ebola crisis.

With Klain’s help, Higher Ground Labs has already raised an additional $1.5 million, giving it more than $2.5 million on hand. And, before the end of August, the organization plans to announce the first crop of 10 campaign tech startups it hopes to support, a selection of companies that seek to bring a Silicon Valley-style approach to polling, data, targeting, analytics and messaging, said Shomik Dutta, a longtime Obama aide and one of the group’s co-founders.

For his part, Klain echoed to Recode the guiding mantra behind Higher Ground Labs — that Democrats have lost significant ground to Republicans in harnessing the best tech tools to communicate with voters and nudge them to the polls on Election Day.

“There was a time when I believed our side had the clear technological advantage,” he said in an interview. After Obama’s re-election victory in 2012, however, Klain admitted he felt the “balance of power” had shifted, particularly as conservative mega-donors like the Koch brothers supercharged their efforts to help Republicans — even at the local level — take advantage of technology.

“We can’t face the superior funding the Republicans have, [and] their advantage in controlling state legislatures, state houses, the Congress and the presidency ... and then also be behind in technology,” Klain said.

For Higher Ground Labs, its summer growth spurt comes at a time of intense introspection on the part of the Democratic Party, where even its leaders, like Hillary Clinton, admit they have tech troubles — along with plenty at stake in 2018, when the composition of Congress is up for grabs in the midterm elections.

Already, the party’s official political organ, the Democratic National Committee, has hired a new chief technology officer: Raffi Krikorian, a former executive at Twitter and Uber, as Recode first reported. Krikorian, for his part, also serves on the board advising Higher Ground Labs.

Other board members include Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 field director; Jon Favreau, Obama’s speechwriter turned podcaster; and Michael Slaby, the chief technology officer for Obama’s 2008 run for the White House.

As chairman of that advisory team, Klain plans to offer his technical expertise, an expansive political rolodex and some fundraising prowess. Before serving Obama, Klain’s government experience included a stint with former President Bill Clinton, and later, he served as chief of staff to then-Vice President Al Gore.

But the day-to-day leadership of Higher Ground Labs still falls to its three co-founders: Dutta; Betsy Hoover, an Obama digital organizing guru now at 270 Strategies; and Andrew McLaughlin, who once served as deputy chief technology officer to the former Democratic president.

Higher Ground Labs also plans to announce on Thursday its first-ever, full-time hire: Joselyn Lai, one of the top aides to Hillary Clinton in 2016. On the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign, Lai specialized in voter turnout in Miami-Dade, Fla., and with Higher Ground Labs, she’ll play a major role providing technical, engineering and logistical support to portfolio companies.

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