Interviewing the Big Red Tent

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Jul 18, 2007 9:13 AM

Ryan Gravatt and Brad Jackson are founders of Big Red Tent, a PAC that some say may become the ActBlue of the Right. I recently had a chance to chat with Ryan. Here's our conversation ...

ML: Tell us a bit about your background, and about the idea.

RG: I'm a former newspaper reporter, and I covered campaigns and politics in Washington, D.C. and in various places in the southeast. Since 2002, I've been an online strategist and Web developer for political campaigns, private companies and nonprofit organizations. Brad has a background in political campaigns and organizing grassroots efforts. He worked on Capitol Hill for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. We've worked together since January 2006.

At the time we met, we each had an idea. Brad wanted to launch a blog and activism clearinghouse where users could discuss campaigns and generate online and offline action to support the campaigns. I wanted to build a Web site without blogging with users who wanted to know about campaigns, and could find these campaigns based upon the user's top issue, and then give them information on how to help them. Basically, we merged these ideas and it became Big Red Tent.

ML: How will it work? I mean, who decides which candidates to support?

RG: Well, after we merged our ideas, we decided Big Red Tent should have a political action committee for raising money and supporting campaigns. We were faced with a decision: Who will the PAC support? We only liked two options. Option 1 is for Brad and I to decide, and Option 2 is to let others decide. We decided Option 2 would be best for a PAC with an online community. Because the Internet facilitates many-to-many communication, we saw an opportunity to grow an organic community of Republicans who could discuss with each other the merits of a candidate and then decide to support that candidate by promoting them to the PAC Slate.[# More #]

The Slate building process begins with a Stump speech, in which a user initiates a dialog about a candidate. If the conversation grows and is healthy – whether positive or negative – we'll ask the entire community to vote on adding the candidate to the PAC's Slate. If the candidate earns a majority vote, the candidate goes onto the PAC's Slate. When the candidate is on the Slate, our site will facilitate online contributions to their campaign. We'll send these along to the campaign with the donor data, so that we are just the clearinghouse.

If we stayed with Option 1 – selecting candidates by ourselves – we could see that we would not be taking advantage of the benefits of the Internet as a communications medium, and in fact, we would just be replicating the existing style of PAC decision-making. Further, if we just selected a slate of candidates that fit our philosophies or judgments, all we would be doing is telling other Republicans who they should support. That's not revolutionary. We want to build a PAC with an online community that could have a townhall discussion and then commit to action.

ML: How are you going to keep campaigns from rigging the system?

RG: The Big Red Tent community concept is built on organic growth. We welcome involvement from all corners of the Republican Party. If a campaign wants to flood our site with supporters, we have tools for them to have a discussion. The community decides who goes on the Slate, and the community generates all the contributions that go to the candidates on the Slate. So if a campaign wants to get a candidate on the slate, they can do that. They won't be tapping into a magical pot of money because our donations will be coming directly from individuals who use our site to give a contribution directly to a candidate on the Slate. We're not building a bank account that becomes a political ATM machine for campaigns at the 11th hour.

ML: Thanks for joining us. Patrick Ruffini argues that we shouldn't be replicating what the Left is doing – but that we should invent something new. How is this similar – and different – from what the Left is doing?

RG: Big Red Tent is a community where the members build the Slate, organize themselves into groups and use our site to build and sustain the community. It may be used for party building, candidate support and coalescing support for issues and candidates from disparate parts of the country.

Soon, our users will build their own slates, which will be their select candidates from the Big Red Tent Slate. We'll empower them to raise money on their Web sites and in their online communities through a widget, or a badge, that connects their site back to their Big Red Tent profile.

We are going to share intelligence about campaigns and tips on grassroots activism with our members. Like any good PAC, we want smart, informed members. Several political observers from inside the beltway and outside the beltway who we respect will be handicapping candidates, providing activism tips and generally helping our members be smart with the time they invest in candidates and the money they contribute.

The Left is building communities all over the Internet, and they are smart about activism where and when it counts. But their main fund raising sites are simply a conduit for funds.

ML: Why do you think the Right has lagged behind when it comes to this

RG: Traditionally, our party has built itself from the grassroots, but it has demanded action from the top-down. When the Internet began to take off, the "top" wanted to maintain control and figure out how to use it in methods similar to their top-down style, such as paid media and direct mail. The Internet decentralizes communication and empowers individuals. This simply doesn't fit within the party's preferred method of party building and grassroots mobilization. This has to change and we hope to foster a revolution.

ML: I saw that RedState plugged you the other day. How did you get that to happen?

RG: We presented the idea to some of Redstate's founders. We think that there's a good match between what they do best – talking about issues from the grassroots' perspective – and what Big Red Tent wants to do – give the Republican online grassroots community a set of tools for organizing and supporting candidates. As Erick Erickson wrote in his post, Redstate gathers Republicans from across the nation into a dialog, and Big Red Tent can empower those same Republicans to support campaigns. Also, there are some good fits between the technology we use and the technology they use.

ML: What can bloggers and blog readers do to help?

RG: They can go to the site today, www.bigredtent.org, and join the community. They should join a group, form a group, create a stump speech for a candidate and they could comment on an existing stump speech. They should be prepared to build a slate of their own. We want their efforts to continue on their blogs, and we'd like for them to have a means of translating their blogging efforts into some meaningful results.

ML: Thanks for joining us, and good luck.