Silicon Valley's tycoons primarily financed safe contests—backing strong incumbents like Sen. Mitch McConnell and Gov. Jerry Brown's ballot initiatives. But they took a risk on a few candidates that were particularly friendly toward's the industry's goals and they got beaten badly.
Tech heavyweights rallied around two candidates running for the US House of Representatives. The first, Sean Eldridge running in New York, got crushed by nearly 30 points. The second was back home in Silicon Valley, where the industry pushed aggressively to unseat longtime congressman Mike Honda.
Sheryl Sandberg, Vinod Khosla, Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel, Google, and Facebook all chipped in to replace their representative with Ro Khanna. Despite Honda and Khanna being both Democrats, Khanna was deemed "one of us" by the industry. Their thinking was that a man who babbles techspeak would be better for the Silicon Valley than a staunch liberal.
But Silicon Valley forgot that it takes more than money to get someone into office—you also have to convince voters to cast their ballots for your candidate. While the industry kept hyping how good Khanna would be for tech, they forgot about all the other voting humans in California. He lost.
Then there was tech's big gamble in supporting Lawrence Lessig's Mayday PAC. Lessig's goal has been to remove corporate money from politics. To do so, Mayday mainly targeted swing races, backing candidates committed to campaign finance reform. And Mayday supported those candidates with millions raised from the likes of Sean Parker, Peter Theil, Reid Hoffman, Evan Williams, Fred Wilson, and Chris Anderson.
But Mayday hasn't really panned out. Most of their candidates lost by staggeringly high margins. The only two winners weren't much of a political risk: Walter B. Jones was an incumbent and Ruben Gallego ran virtually unopposed.
In New Hampshire on September 9th, Scott Brown beat Jim Rubens by more than twenty-six points. Lessig put up a blog post headlined "WE LOST. BADLY." He flew to Washington the next day, and we met at the office of the Global Strategy Group. Lessig said it was a mistake to have backed Rubens. His advisers had warned him that Brown was too far ahead, the campaign was too short, and television ads in New Hampshire were too expensive. Lessig had stubbornly gambled that they could win anyway, but, in the end, he said, "it was an impossible lift."
It's too bad. Campaign finance reform is something this country badly needs, and it benefits all of us that the tech industry has come down firmly on the right side of the issue. But their political naiveté shined through this election, and they looked more like a reliable ATM for the Washington establishment than a disruptive threat to the status quo.