Why Zuckerberg's political group is playing both sides

May 10, 2013: 11:55 AM ET

FWD.us, backed by clean-tech evangelists, is pushing dirty energy projects to push for immigration reform. Will the disruptive lobbying work?

By Tory Newmyer

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

FORTUNE -- The tech executives behind FWD.us, Silicon Valley's latest foray into political advocacy, have earned the ire of their friends and neighbors by embracing bare-knuckle tactics in their push for immigration reform. And the founders, including Facebook's (FB) Mark Zuckerberg, may be stung by the blowback -- but they have not been chastened.

The group kicked up a controversy when its pair of subsidiaries -- one to focus on Democrats, the other on Republicans -- ran home-state ads thanking Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for their leadership. Both had been targeted by anti-immigration ads, but these spots didn't mention the issue.

Instead, the Begich ad praised the Senator for supporting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and backing a balanced-budget amendment. The Graham version lauded the lawmaker for opposing President Obama's health care reform law and the stimulus while supporting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Environmental and other progressive activists are apoplectic about what they view as a betrayal by the tech honchos, erstwhile fellow travelers who just happen to have a lot of money. They want to know why FWD.us, heavy on clean-tech evangelists, is paying to promote dirty energy projects, among other policy ends they see as retrograde.

MORE: Wanted: Data scientists. No math chops? No problem.

It's a good question. Here's the answer:

For its inaugural gambit, the group was looking to send a message to other lawmakers eyeing tough votes in the immigration debate. Graham is a member of the Gang of Eight that produced the immigration reform bill now under consideration in the Senate, and Begich is considered a key swing vote for its passage. The ads were reverse-engineered from polling in Alaska and South Carolina that identified the highlighted issues as the most resonant with their respective constituencies.

Begich, vulnerable in 2014 as a Democrat in a ruby-red state, has to shore up his independence from the national party. Graham faces a different calculus. The possibility of a primary challenge from the right means he needs to burnish his conservative credentials. Hence, ads staking out positions their sponsors for the most part don't share.

The aim was to broadcast the group's intent to meet lawmakers where they live and be flexible in helping provide the political cover that will allow them to maneuver in the immigration debate.

Meanwhile, praising fossil fuel production to voters in Alaska and South Carolina is preaching to the converted -- it won't exactly move the needle in the national energy debate. It could, however, convince Republicans and moderate Democrats inclined to warily eye a bunch of squishy coastal billionaires of their seriousness of purpose.

"They're doing exactly the right thing," a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said. "They're announcing they're going to be smart and strategic."

MORE: How much will immigration reform really cost?

Not everyone is convinced. One tech lobbyist says the approach, by avoiding any mention of the immigration debate itself, sends the message that FWD.us is "afraid of its own issue. They're saying, 'We want you to vote for this, but we don't want to get you in trouble.'"

In fact, the group has a template for making the conservative case for immigration reform -- an ad that ran in six states praising Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for his work on the issue. It's a much more traditional approach to advocacy, and it has the benefit of framing the debate at hand while protecting a Congressional ally.

It should probably come as no surprise that an upstart tech lobby would launch with a "disruptive" ploy. Whether the group sticks with it will reveal whether the political dividends justify the rumpus.

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.