Can He Turn Republican Candidates Into Superheroes?

Can He Turn Republican Candidates Into Superheroes?

Why you should care

Because big data and skilled organizing means votes. Capiche?

I’ve logged into my new account, so I guess there’s no going back now. The screen shows a cartoon figure ripping open his shirt, Clark Kent fashion, with the tagline “Become a Conservative Superhero!” Further down the page, webinar courses, with icons shaped like Boy Scout merit badges, promise to teach me campaign finance and canvassing, among other things, for $49.95 a pop. I select the free intro course, “Running for Office.” A video begins, its staticky narration informing me, “This is Ned Ryun, CEO and founder of American Majority. And I want to talk to you about the human element.”

Half a minute of clicking and I’m a Republican candidate in the making.

Ease of use is the goal for Ryun, the human behind all this. With his academic spectacles, television-ready suit and muscular frame threatening to burst out of said suit, Ryun bears more than a passing resemblance to the superhero he suggests activists become. The 43-year-old Kansan has two goals: to take grassroots energy and shape the next generation of conservatives (through American Majority) while turning “data into votes” (through Voter Gravity, the canvassing technology firm he also heads). Ryun is changing the way conservatives campaign, from school boards to statehouse gigs and Senate seats, says John Eddy, a George W. Bush White House aide and national victory director for the 2006 Republican National Convention.

Ryun says his own ideology solidified after he served as a presidential writer for George W. Bush, an experience that left him feeling like “compassionate conservatism” was just code for “big government.”

Though the GOP still lacks the digital investment and prowess of Obama-era Democrats, Ryun has made a reputation for building a conservative upswing in lower-level races. “Even when the tide seems totally against him, he wants to go forward and push,” Eddy says. Ryun’s vision is hardly revolutionary — databases fed by volunteers seconds after they leave your doorstep; integrated campaigns that share voter profiles effortlessly; relentless email targeting and fundraising — but it is a big deal for Republicans who are still playing catch-up, a reality that is “no secret,” says political theorist Josef Ansorge. The campaigns of Ted Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Rand Paul, were examples of the “positive strides made in the center right,” Ryun says, although it’s still “not part of the DNA.”

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Ned Ryun speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Source Gage Skidmore / Flickr CC

Ryun’s competitive drive and conservatism run in the family. His twin brother, Drew, is political director at the Madison Project, a conservative political action committee, while his father, Jim Ryun, won a silver medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the 1,500-meter run, and, in 2006, was voted the most conservative member of the 535-person Congress by the National Journal. Influenced by the writings of Russell Kirk and F.A. Hayek, Ned Ryun says his own ideology solidified after he served as a presidential writer for George W. Bush, an experience that left him feeling like “compassionate conservatism” was just code for “big government.” After leaving the White House, Ryun co-founded Generation Joshua, a project that recruited and trained teenagers as activists ahead of the 2004 election. In response to liberal efforts that helped turn Colorado blue, Ryun began American Majority in 2008, which has blossomed alongside the tea party in the past half-decade.

Today, as modern conservatism is redefined, Ryun is an enigmatic mashup — an evangelical movement conservative with a taste for Buckley-esque esotericism. A regular guest on Fox News and CNN, he is well-spoken, hosts a podcast, for fun, on the American Revolution and writes a monthly column for The American Spectator, a home for the intellectual right that has featured influencers like George Will and Pat Buchanan. In 2016’s Grand Old Party, those elite voices have lost some of their luster as they face down the rise of Donald Trump; Ryun, for his part, projects a man-of-the-people sensibility, railing against a consultancy class that he says is paid millions to pad egos and trust funds, but not to win elections.

Which is smart framing for his line of work, given that it’s been difficult to get the GOP to invest in the staffers and databases necessary for digital campaigns. That stuff is often the first to go. “You’d get it budgeted two years out,” Eddy says, “and it would get stripped down to nothing.” Strategists disproportionately advise their candidate to invest in big media buys and mailer campaigns, Ryun claims, which they then get a cut from. (A seasoned Republican official told OZY that some strategists earn as much as 5 percent of a campaign’s total buy, costing a candidate, in one outrageous case, as much as 8 cents per automatic dial for robocalls.) “This is the great irony, to me,” Ryun says. “The left uses free-market, entrepreneurial approaches in its pursuit of statism. The right uses top-down command-and-control in pursue of free-market entrepreneurialism.”

Ryun has a habit of casting surprisingly admiring glances in the president’s direction, although they lie on opposite ideological poles. “Obama in 2012 literally started a tech startup within the campaign,” he says. Perhaps the Obama obsession speaks to some Sun Tzu “know thy enemy” complex for the history buff — or, more likely, marks a simple admission that nobody has yet matched the organizer in chief. When leading seminars for Republican activist groups like Turning Point USA or the American Conservative Union, Ryun quotes Obama alums such as Jeremy Bird, a field director, or Harper Reed, the campaign’s chief technical officer. “They are consistent. They are disciplined. They never stop,” Ryun told organizers in December. At this rate, neither will he.

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