It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon in one of the most liberal cities in America, and Rand Paul — the Republican United States senator from Kentucky running for president — is talking about Snapchat.
"We use Snapchat more than anybody else out there," he brags during a speech in San Francisco. The crowd loves it. It's a Snapchat kind of crowd.
Paul is speaking from a concrete-floored South of Market coworking space, StartupHouse, that will soon become the campaign's home in San Francisco. The audience is made up of more than a hundred Rand fans and at least a dozen reporters. One entire wall is covered in chalkboard paint and pink and blue handwritten messages. Startup-y miscellany clutters nearly every empty surface — papers, all manner of cords and chargers, one $4,400 check, uncashed. One guy is wearing a shirt that says "freelance developer." Another has a laptop sticker that reads "I don't believe the liberal agenda." He's livetweeting. The event is called — and, really, there is nothing else it could be called — Disrupting Democracy. It's all very two point omg.
And it is certainly very new.
As Vincent Harris, a Paul staffer who sat near the back tweeting from the senator's Twitter account, told BuzzFeed News, Paul's campaign is the only one with a tech advisory board, a CTO, a digital strategist, and offices in both San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Another attendee, Matt Shupe, a thirtysomething political consultant, points out that it's rare for a politician on either side of the aisle to treat California as anything other than an ATM, hosting free, open events such as this one.
Paul's commitment to courting Silicon Valley is genuine, if a bit puzzling — California hasn't gone red in a presidential contest since 1988, and as San Francisco Chronicle political columnist Carla Marinucci noted toward the end of the panel, "the tech community voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the last election." But Silicon Valley is nothing if not relentlessly optimistic in the face of mounting obstacles and historic reality. There's a case to be made that liberal San Francisco's backlash against the Google Busses and the Twitter tax breaks have served to alienate the tech community, and that, if pitched right, Paul's particular brand of civil libertarianism could square with Silicon Valley's iconoclastic ethos.
At any rate, the people crowded into StartupHouse seemed to believe it could. "We're here in San Francisco to show that we're a different kind of Republican, and we're here to compete for every vote," Paul said at the end of his short speech, to positively thunderous applause.
After the event — a clean 38 minutes, including opening remarks and a panel discussion — he was mobbed by people requesting selfies and autographs; one fan, a youngish guy in a corduroy blazer, chased the Senator about his startup, a voter engagement app. Think Rand Paul as VC. And then, he was out.
Outside on the sidewalk past the scrum of picture-takers and startup-pitchers, I chased Paul down. Although he'd fielded questions from attendees after the event, he had dodged the press. I wanted to see if I could ask him a quick question. But he wasn't having it. This stop was but one of many.
So the Senator from Kentucky trotted off into the sun, surrounded by aides and bodyguards. I squinted after them, trying to see the car he got into — look for the tell-tale Uber sticker or Lyft mustache — but no luck; he had already turned a corner.
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