Utah Campaign Plugs In to Derail Hatch

Utah Campaign Plugs In to Derail Hatch

BY Editors | Monday, October 24 2005

Could tech talk help a relatively unknown candidate defeat a five-term, nationally-recognized Senator? Utah State Representative Steve Urquhart hopes so. The conservative Utah state legislator is banking on a technology-based platform to unseat 29-year five-term Republican Senator Orrin Hatch in 2006. State Representative Urquhart has picked up momentum by engaging his constituents via his weblog and cultivating support nationally online by challenging Hatch’s defense of Hollywood and media companies in the ongoing debate about file-sharing and fair use.

“I see technology as a potential deal-changer in this campaign,” said Phil Windley, associate professor of computer science at Brigham Young University and a former chief information officer for the State of Utah who is guiding Internet strategy for Urquhart’s campaign. Windley believes Hatch’s record of siding with corporations in tussles with individual “technologists” has the potential to make the campaign a national race. “You may not be able to vote in the election here, but you can participate in other ways,” he said.

Urquhart, a 40-year-old attorney and Utah House Majority Whip, said he wants to gather 3,000 volunteers, with an initial recruiting push currently underway. Windley said the state’s GOP convention next May is a key to defeating the 71-year-old Hatch, whose war chest is approaching $2 million and who benefits from strong name recognition. To avoid a runoff, a candidate must garner 60 percent of support from about 2,500 delegates, who will be elected in March. To offset Hatch’s incumbent advantage, Windley said the issue-centric delegates offer Urquhart’s campaign an opening. “It’s a group that is less prone to be swayed by advertisements and more prone to listen to issues,” he said.

One of the core issues Urquhart is using to separate himself from Hatch is the Internet. Urquhart said Hatch is on the wrong side of the file-sharing and copyright debate with his sponsorship of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 and the failed Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004. Both pieces of legislation defended large media companies against upstarts and innovation, Urquhart said, while pointing to Hatch’s close ties to Hollywood and the mass media industries. “I want to protect democratizing tools and technology,” he said. “Look at these technology fights. You have entrenched interests fighting the upstarts. Let’s not forget we’re a nation of upstarts.”

Urquhart says individuals should be penalized for illegal activity, not the technology utilized for the infringement, as was the case when MGM sued Grokster this year in a case that hit the U.S. Supreme Court and buoyed the recording industry over file-sharing entities.

But technology isn’t just a campaign issue for Urquhart. It is also driving his recruitment efforts. Windley said he will employ open-source software he began testing in the last governor’s race in the Beehive State, when he backed Nolan Karras, an unsuccessful challenger to Governor John Huntsman Jr. A precinct chair himself, Windley said the technology set to go to work for Urquhart – some of which was derived from open-source tools used by the Dean campaign in 2004 –can home in on delegates and potential volunteers and build up a political organization while tracking it. “There’s plenty of good data on who are the most influential people in each precinct.…so we are compiling databases of the 25 or 50 most influential people in every district and we’ll get after them.”

Windley’s application is a referral system that gets volunteers to commit a certain number of people [five was the target in the governor’s race] to one of three actions: to post a yard sign, donate, or get a set number of their friends to commit to the same. Windley said the goal of the application is to build a grassroots social network around the campaign by giving volunteers a workflow tool to manage simple efforts to commit people to acts that would cement their vote.

“These sorts of things are as old as campaigns, but it’s technology that allows you to manage it,” he said. Much of that effort will be coordinated by Urquhart’s blog and website, where volunteers can sign up and be entered into the campaign system.

Senator Hatch also has a blog on his campaign site, but writings posted there are a one-way dialog as readers’ comments are not included on the site. Hatch’s blog entries also stick closely to Republican talking points, offering little of the informal interaction typically associated with the blogosphere.

It remains to be seen if Windley's volunteer engagement tool will work as advertised, since the campaign is just beginning to make use of it and public attention is barely focused on the race. But Urquhart's blogging is certainly more interesting than Hatch's--so far, Technorati counts 36 links to Urquhart's site (including a bunch from Windley, who is an avid blogger), compared to zero for Hatch.

Before he started blogging, Urquhart said gathering constituents to discuss their concerns through traditional politicking wasn’t working with any regularity. Last fall, he began using Google’s Blogger platform to opine on his time in the statehouse and other issues affecting Utah, and noticed constituents responding to or referring to his posts. “I knew that people were interested in politics because they always stop me at the store or a ballgame, but I realized they need to do it on their schedule,” he said.

But a running diary of political positions and thoughts can be seen as precarious in politics. “People said, early on, ‘Aren’t you worried that if you put your views up there candidly that it will be used against you?’” Urquhart recalled. “You can’t think that way anymore. I think the public will demand this in the future….The political dialogue really has been kept to a small number of people – just the insiders – for the last several decades. With technology like this, we can expand outward that group that has the information, and with it, the power.”

He is not alone in targeting Hatch’s seat. Democrat Pete Ashdown, who owns a local Internet service provider in the state, has also thrown his hat in the ring and others could follow. “Senator Hatch's vulnerability shows in several areas, the most telling of which is the scramble among Utah Republicans to mount primary challenges against him,” said Jeff Bell, communications director for the Utah Democratic Party, in an e-mail. “Hatch has been examined by his constituency and they've found the closer view less than satisfactory.”

Urquhart recognizes the challenge ahead of him, but says his desire to channel as many voices as possible is what sets him apart. He is drawing support from the conservative community across the U.S. and from tech-savvy supporters with deep pockets like Mark Cuban.

“I don’t think I’m smarter than the next guy,” said Urquhart. “I don’t have all the answers. I’m eager to get input and get as many people involved as possible in the process. I believe in the wisdom of the collective.”

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Greg Hazley is a senior editor for the J.R. O'Dwyer Co. in New York covering public relations, public affairs and lobbying.

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