Laying down a marker in a state with a burgeoning tech community — and no shortage of political ambition — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul on Monday opened an Austin outpost of his likely 2016 presidential campaign, hailing it as proof of his forward-thinking appeal to nontraditional Republican voters.
"People keep asking, 'Why are you in Texas and not in New Hampshire?'" the Kentucky Republican said, nodding to the influx of his potential presidential rivals this past weekend into the Granite State. "Well, because I think if you want talent, you've got to go where the talent is."
Housed in downtown startup incubator Capital Factory, the outpost for now will be staffed by Vincent Harris, Paul's chief digital strategist, and Rachel Kania, senior field and technology strategist. Both are working for RANDPAC, the political action committee that has been laying the groundwork for Paul's 2016 run, which he is expected to announce within the next few weeks.
Paul, who was raised in Texas and attended Baylor University, touted the office as an early investment in an area where his party lagged during the last presidential race. He said the GOP did "too little too late" to counter President Obama's tech-friendly campaign, and the office sends the signal "we plan on getting organized at an early date, having an office here and collecting the best minds."
However, Paul was quick to caution technology is "no magic cure" for a winning campaign. To be effective, he stressed it has to be paired with a message that resonates, namely the limited-government gospel he's been spreading across Austin amid its South by Southwest festival.
"Technology can help us find the people who might consider voting if they actually had something to believe in," Paul said.
The office opening also was an opportunity for Paul to show off his ability to assemble top-flight political talent in a state where allegiances are mixed among several potential candidates. Harris and Kania both worked for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's underdog bid for the U.S. Senate, and their hires bookended another notable get by Paul, former Texas GOP chief Steve Munisteri.
Asked Sunday why he thought Harris and Kania joined his nascent campaign — as opposed to, say, that of Cruz — Paul told The Texas Tribune his staffers can speak for themselves, but his team has "shown that we really are tech-friendly, we're one of the leading proponents of [National Security Agency] reform and of privacy, and I think maybe people gravitate to us for that reason."
Capital Factory officials have emphasized the outpost is not a campaign headquarters but a working space for Paul's Austin-based tech team. Eugene Sepulveda, Capital Factory's director of government affairs, said Monday the venture is "about civic entrepreneurship, not about campaigning."
"I've gotten a lot of questions from our community about it," Joshua Baer, executive director of Capital Factory, told reporters Saturday after a reception for tech executives at the Governor's Mansion. "What's really significant for me and for the community is they're making the effort to outreach to the tech community. ... We want to be a part of that, we want to be involved, we want to do it in a way that's open and that's nonpartisan and that is inclusive."
After meeting Paul on Monday, Jeff Cardenas and Joseph Santori — co-founders of voter engagement app ThinkVoting — said they had no problem with Paul's team setting up shop at Capital Factory, welcoming any effort to meld politics and technology, Democratic or Republican.
"Everyone is wanting to use technology to push the democratic process forward, and it's a sign of the times," Cardenas said, explaining that technology seems to have revolutionized every area of life except the act of getting elected.
"Politics," Santori added, "is the final frontier for technology."
It was a mantra Paul sought to embrace as he toured Capital Factory, patiently listening to workers explain their startups and posing for photos with members of the audience. Two of them asked if he could star in a selfie with them for Snapchat, a photo-sharing app Paul has embraced and used to document his trip to Austin. The senator happily obliged.
Disclosure: Eugene Sepulveda is a donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.