Google woos the Republicans

February 16, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Known for its leftward leanings, the tech giant is beginning to pay a whole lot more attention to the GOP.

By Tory Newmyer, writer

House Republicans were still unpacking their boxes in the first week of January when outgoing Google CEO Eric Schmidt showed up with a tantalizing offer: Since the GOP had reclaimed power in part on promises to make government more transparent, Google could volunteer its vast technical know-how to help make it happen. In a series of meetings with the new leadership, Schmidt walked Republicans through what was possible -- from updating bill-drafting software to making legislation more easily searchable.

The pitch came straight from the tech giant's political playbook. Since opening its first lobbying office inside the Beltway in 2005, Google has sought to position itself as a wonky resource for policymakers as well as a profit-driven enterprise. But Schmidt's tour was also the latest example of a more recent push by the company to court a resurgent Republican Party.

Google (GOOG) has a singular reputation among Republicans as a committed Democratic ally, owing largely to the personal affiliations of its ranks. Schmidt himself actively campaigned for Barack Obama and continues to be a go-to adviser for him on economic matters, although it's unclear what will happen after he transitions from CEO to executive chairman in April. But the company's leftward tilt runs beyond Schmidt; in the last election, Google employees sent 83% of their political contributions to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Yet no party stays on top forever. So as the political winds shifted in the summer of 2009, the company launched a quiet series of moves to reach out to Republicans. It recruited Seth Webb, a savvy staffer wired into House GOP leadership, to an in-house lobbying team. The company joined the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit run by lobbyists that helps fund the House Republicans' annual retreat. And it stepped up a parade of Mountain View, Calif., campus visits by Republican lawmakers. Says a Google spokeswoman: "Technology isn't a partisan issue. We've believed for a long time that it's important to build relationships on both sides of the aisle."

Indeed, the company may need them. The flip side of Google's information-sharing mission is what detractors call a casual attitude toward intellectual property and privacy -- an issue that could attract Republican scrutiny. Also, Google has antitrust headaches, the latest a potential Justice Department suit challenging its acquisition of travel data company ITA Software. That may be why, in January, the company hired another GOP staffer, this time from the House Judiciary Committee. "They're doing very smart things," says Scott Cleland, an independent research analyst and Google critic, "but they have a big hole to dig out of." Or an opportunity to climb into.

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