PayPal, the ubiquitous online payments service, has been in the news lately as much for its former employees as for its fast-growing business. From YouTube to LinkedIn, from award-winning picture “Thank You for Smoking” to path-breaking rocket company SpaceX, PayPal alumni are everywhere. As Forbes magazine recently put it, “maybe there was something in the beer.”
It was just a matter of time until one of them got into politics.
Enter Rod Martin.
Martin is bigger than life, physically and every other way. Whether speaking to groups of 10 or 10,000, all across the nation he draws the crowd in, bringing them to tears or lifting them to their feet at will. His overstuffed agenda includes a weekly conference call with the White House. He keeps the talk-radio schedule of a candidate (he denies running for anything), and slips effortlessly between topics as diverse as tax reform, the disposition of military forces across the Middle East, and the implications of his friends’ technological endeavors over the next five decades. He’s friendly, jovial, self-deprecating. You can’t help but like him.
And he has a plan.
“The left has been brilliant at leveraging technology,” he says, “and so have we to a point: our bloggers and news sites are amazing, and the RNC’s get-out-the-vote software is unparalleled. But no one on our side has even begun to create anything like MoveOn. And after 2006, if we want to survive, much less build a long-term conservative majority, we better start, and fast.”
So he’s setting out to do just that, at a still-small site called TheVanguard.org.
An Impressive Start
“We’re still too new for a feature story,” Martin tells me shortly after the November election. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re still a beta site. You really ought to come back in a year.”
But the insiders tell a different story. Launched as an organization last March, TheVanguard.org already has a top-drawer cast, including Silicon Valley heavy-hitters like Eric Jackson (a former PayPal colleague of Martin’s, where he was head of marketing) and Gil Amelio (former CEO of two Fortune 500 companies, including Apple Computer), among others.
But it is far from an all-California show. Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist is on its board too, as are Club for Growth founder (and current Wall Street Journal editorial board member) Stephen Moore, famed actress Jane Russell, direct-mail pioneer Walt Longyear, “compassionate conservatism” guru Marvin Olasky, even Reagan Doctrine-architect Jack Wheeler. Martin refuses to confirm or deny rumors that Jerome Corsi—co-author of 2004’s “Unfit for Command,” which irreparably damaged John Kerry’s presidential hopes—has signed on for a similar effort against Hillary.
The diversity of issues represented by this group is not accidental. “The scope and immediacy of the internet makes bringing people together a lot easier,” Martin explains. “The conservative movement is far too fractured. Libertarians attack Christians, pro-gunners snipe at pro-lifers, border security folks question outreach to conservative Hispanics. It’s not what you’d call conducive to victory.
“The left has always been better at coalition building, and MoveOn is the latest means by which they’re better. But the internet is a great leveler: we can do this too. And we must.”
Early indications are that they will. After less than a year of “beta tests” which included efforts to extend the Bush tax cuts and derail a United Nations gun ban conference (it ended in deadlock), the group’s web traffic exceeds that of many of the most noteworthy political groups in America. While still far short of the exalted ranks of MoveOn, DailyKos or WorldNetDaily, web rankings generated by Alexa.com show TheVanguard.org beating such established organizations as the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, the Club for Growth, the Minuteman Project and People for the American Way. Martin notes with a combination of surprise and glee that this is before the full site “goes live,” and before the group executes its marketing plan.
What accounts for this early success? “They’re a real Silicon Valley team,” says Richard Poe, whose New York Times best-seller “The Shadow Party” (co-authored with David Horowitz) chronicles the role of MoveOn in modern politics. “MoveOn grew from a Silicon Valley vision, Silicon Valley money, Silicon Valley talent. Conservatives have very little of that, and a great deal of what they do have is concentrated in TheVanguard.org.”
Getting From There to Here
Like so many others with a Silicon Valley pedigree, Martin is something of a Horatio Alger story.
He grew up poor in small-town Arkansas, but even as a small child he stood out. He could read at the age of three; he had consumed the entire World Book Encyclopedia and most of the town library by the time he was eight. He was repeatedly re-elected class president, voted most likely to succeed, and graduated valedictorian. He was a state quiz bowl champion (years later he would be named player of the week on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”), and like another famous Arkansas high schooler, he was elected by his peers across the state to represent them at the American Legion’s Boys Nation, where he too met his hero, President Ronald Reagan.
A National Merit Scholar, he later won a fellowship that would send him to Britain’s Cambridge University, where he studied eighteenth century political economy and the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Afterward, he wound up at his church’s premier law school, Baylor, and was elected student body president there too.
By then, the tech boom was beginning and Martin’s eyes were turning west; but a call from Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee put those thoughts on hold. He went back to Little Rock to serve as the governor’s policy director during the 1998 election cycle, filling the place of a senior aide who’d left to run the governor’s re-election campaign.
It was then that he caught the bug. Convinced that the local liberal Congressman, Vic Snyder, was more vulnerable than he looked and urged on by senior Republican insiders, Martin entered the U.S. House race. He quickly lined up the public backing of most of the state’s GOP establishment, Huckabee included, plus national Republicans like Steve Forbes and Lyn Nofziger. He even set a fundraising record for the Republican primary in his district.
But it wasn’t enough. A late entrant emerged in the primary’s closing days, and Democrats smelled blood. “The Party organized a large crossover vote to beat him,” says Charles Durnett, a prominent Democratic strategist in Arkansas for over thirty years. “They did not want to run against Rod Martin.”
Blindsided, Martin lost. At first, he made plans to run again; but in ensuing weeks, he became extremely ill, and, at his health’s lowest ebb, his adored wife left him.
It was the last straw. It was time to resume course.
A New Beginning
The Arkansas detour behind him, Martin’s life took a radical turn for the better. He became part of what insiders term “the Peter Thiel keiretsu,” serving as the PayPal founder’s Special Counsel during the company’s startup, IPO and merger with eBay, and later at Thiel’s Clarium Capital. His technology involvements continue, and he serves on several boards.
While at PayPal, he married the former Sherri Mitchell, a single mother of three who had also been abandoned by a former spouse, and adopted her children. “He is our Boaz,” she says. “He redeemed what was cast off, and we love him.”
His political fortunes blossomed as well. Martin was inducted as a member of the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy, conservatives’ super-secret strategy group dubbed by the New York Times the “club of the most powerful.” And just last year, Martin was added to the Arlington Group—the coordinating body of America’s most senior Christian Right leadership—sources say at the personal request of Dr. James Dobson.
The journey has not been without struggles: two years ago, the family’s home was destroyed by a hurricane; and in 2006 Sherri was diagnosed with cancer (her prognosis is excellent). But in all of this Martin is undaunted. “The Lord has provided for us in more ways than I can express. The fact that He could or would do so much with a poor kid from Arkansas—and a flawed one through and through—amazes me. I’m just very, very grateful for all He’s done.”
The Vanguard of the Revolution
If TheVanguard.org sounds familiar, it is: Martin’s earlier, all-volunteer Vanguard Policy Action Council, has been around for years. And the name has deeper origins still. “It comes from Lenin’s description of the Communist Party as ‘the vanguard of the revolution,’” he says. “We’re tweaking the left; we’re also asserting the revolution of Washington and Madison.”
It remains to be seen whether such lofty goals are feasible. But there’s no question Martin has made believers of some very elite friends. “Rod is a real conservative mover and shaker,” says Norquist, who is widely considered America’s most influential lobbyist. “He’s got a great history and a great future.” Amelio, the CEO physicist inventor who just raised several hundred million dollars for his own latest venture, agrees. “Rod is humble, but he’s brilliant. He is absolutely the man to do this.”
But no one voices this more strongly than Martin’s old boss Thiel. “Rod is one of this nation’s leading public policy minds,” says the man who built PayPal. “He possesses a more complete understanding of America than most executives have of their own businesses. He’s smart, original, and very committed—a combination that one rarely finds and that will take him far.”
With so many PayPalian second acts in the headlines, it’s hard to argue with that.
Joshua Rutledge contributed to this story.