Election Road Trip: Silicon Valley Republicans — Wandering in a Political Wilderness

Boris Feldman tries to woo a potential voter to the GOP. (Image Courtesy Boris Feldman)

Boris Feldman tries to woo a potential voter. (Image Courtesy Boris Feldman)

For Election 2012 The California Report has been hitting the road to talk to voters in various parts of the state —  previously we’ve visited Riverside and Fresno. Today we turn to Silicon Valley. You might think the famously entrepreneurial business culture of Silicon Valley naturally fosters Republican sentiments, but the Republicans we talked to say they’re wandering in the political wilderness.

The Santa Clara County Republican Party recently held a fundraiser for Johnny Khamis, the GOP-endorsed candidate for San Jose City Council District 10. About 25 people showed up to rub shoulders over platters of hors d’oeuvres from Costco. If Khamis were to win, there would be two Republicans on the 10-member council.

“I go knocking on doors in my precincts every day,” Khamis tells me, “and some of them will ask me straight up: ‘Are you a Republican or Democrat?’ And I tell ‘em, ‘It’s a nonpartisan race.’ And then they say, ‘So what are you? A Democrat or a Republican?’ And I say, you know, ‘I’m a Republican,’ and if it’s a Democrat,  a lot of them will, um, slam the door in my face. Occasionally. OK, not a lot of them. But occassionally. It happens.”

“The Republicans in California have to completely recast the party or they’ll be in a permanent minority.”

Here in Santa Clara County, Republicans account for just 23 percent of registered voters. Compare that with 30 percent statewide. It’s fair to say Republicans are feeling outnumbered in many parts of California, but Helen Wang of San Jose says she  feels like she has a target on her forehead.

“That’s how I feel,” she says, laughing. “Because usually nobody supports me at all.”

And that’s even despite Wang being a social liberal, like many Republicans in California.

“I believe gay marriage should be legal,” she points out. “I’m pro-choice.”

Wang may feel the anti-GOP sentiment more acutely because she’s active in the local party, but even rank-and-file Republicans can feel tempted to lay low.

Attorney Boris Feldman of Palo Alto says he’s used to being the token Republican in the room,  which is ironic, given that his exposure to Silicon Valley has a lot to do with why he became one in the first place. He grew up a liberal Democrat in South Bend, Indiana, and has spent the last 26 years representing technology companies in shareholder lawsuits.

Business is very different out here — probably the best hope of our country economically,” he says. “And it just started to change how I looked at things like government regulation and government involvement in the marketplace.”

The 57-year-old loves so much about the Bay Area: the appetite for risk,  the willingness to fail early and often, the easy embrace of diversity, the sheer ambition to change the world for the better.

“There’s so much to be grateful for in living here,” he tells me. “On the other hand, we’re living in a bankrupt state that’s completely controlled by groups that get their money from the state. The teachers’ unions, the prison guard unions, other unions. They own this state.”

But after watching Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina faceplant — politically speaking — in the election two years ago, Feldman stopped giving to the California Republican Party.

“It would be almost devastating for me to go home at Thanksgiving. Like, ‘Hey, Grandad. Yeah, I voted Romney.’ And…being 92 years old, I think he might just drop dead.”

“I’m going to need to see a way out of the wilderness before I start donating to them again,” he says. “The Republicans in California have to completely recast the party or they’ll be in a permanent minority.”

Like Wang, Feldman is also a social liberal. He blames the party’s conservative social platform for turning off his voting friends who might otherwise choose the GOP. Feldman has given $2,500 dollars to Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency, but these days, he mostly gives to his Orthodox synagogue in Palo Alto. “You get much more satisfaction giving to a local organization where you can tell it’s going to make a difference than you do in giving to another politician who’s robo-dialing.”

Mitt Romney may not collect a lot of votes in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he is collecting a lot of money here. Romney has made repeated trips to Northern California, making sure to stop in wealthy enclaves like Hillsborough. For die-hard Republicans, Romney is the candidate to stand behind — whether or not this ticket is doing anything to grow the GOP party locally, the way Feldman would like.

Jeff Whitlow might be one of those persuadable voters Feldman talks about. Whitlow grew up in what he describes as an upper-class household in Michigan. He went to private schools. He went to Stanford. “I never went to public school a day in my life,” he confesses.

Today, Whitlow, 24, lives in San Francisco and works in Foster City at Bailard, an investment management firm that caters to people Silicon Valley made wealthy. Many of his clients, he says, are Republicans. Many of his friends are Republicans. His heart is with the GOP — even though his family is True Blue.

“You gotta support the black president because you’re black,” says Whitlow, who is African American. “It doesn’t really make sense when you verbalize it. They’re very proud to have a black president. But … the party doesn’t necessarily represent their best interests.”

Whitlow voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and the pressure is on for him to do it again. He wants to vote for a Republican president. But he feels he can’t do it this year — not given that social conservative Paul Ryanis on the ticket and not given his family back in Michigan. So Whitlow’s thinking of voting Republican “down ballot.”

“It will likely be a split ticket, because it would be almost devastating for me to go home at Thanksgiving. Like, ‘Hey, Grandad. Yeah, I voted Romney.’ And he would probably, being 92 years old, I think he might just drop dead.”

And you’d be remembered for killing your grandfather, I point out.

“Exactly. I don’t want that weight on me for the rest of my life!”

Whitlow expects to be taking a lot of phone calls from his Grandad between now and November 6.  But come 2016, Whitlow’s vote for president may well belong to the GOP.