The man praised by many GOP technorati as the one thing their party had going for it says new chairman Michael Steele never asked him to stay -- although, Cyrus Krohn says, his mind was made up to leave.
Krohn, who had worked at Yahoo and Slate before taking over the RNC's Web efforts in July 2007, is credited with expanding the party's e-mail list from 1.8 million to 12 million while dramatically improving the party's social media outreach.
In his first interview since leaving the Republican National Committee in March, Krohn explained why he quit his job as e-campaign director and returned to the Pacific Northwest and the technology industry. If the party is ever to compete online, Krohn told NationalJournal.com's Lucas Grindley, it needs stability among those fostering its innovation. And, he said, it would help if Steele bit his tongue on occasion.
Edited excerpts follow. Read more Insider Interviews in NationalJournal.com's archives.
NJ: One of your biggest accomplishments was increasing the party's e-mail list from 1.8 million to 12 million in little more than a year. Can that number be right? How did you do it?
Krohn: There were a number of different campaigns that we used to acquire a lot of e-mail addresses.... On Valentine's Day two years ago, you could come to GOP.com and create a Valentine's Day card. We had several hundred thousand people come to the site for the first time because of the media coverage.
NJ: What does a GOP valentine look like?
Krohn: Well, one of the Valentine's Day cards was a photo of Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton, and it said, "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'll raise your taxes and there's nothing that you can do." One of the cards was a picture of President Obama -- then Senator Obama -- that said, "Three years in the U.S. Senate qualifies me to wish you a happy Valentine's Day."
NJ: Did you send one to your wife? Was she appreciative?
Krohn: I did send one, but she wasn't terribly appreciative. [Laughs] We don't share a lot in common as it pertains to politics.
NJ: You were sharing lists with John McCain's campaign. What does that entail?
Krohn: Well, the addresses were provided to the committee after the election. But yes, it's a legally binding agreement where, on a 1-for-1 basis, we give them an e-mail address and they give us an e-mail address.
NJ: All those tactics got you to 12 million e-mails.
Krohn: It's almost on parity with the Obama campaign. I think the difference was about half a million e-mail addresses. And that story really didn't get told during the campaign. Now, people will argue, and I think rightly so, that the Obama campaign's 12.5 million were pure, organically acquired e-mail addresses and some of ours were purchased, and then some of those were from the match. So while the numbers were very similar, the way in which the two organizations got to that number was entirely different.
NJ: Switching gears a little. You mention your wife has different political views. Your family is not bashful about their politics. Your father worked at the Pentagon and criticized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq war. I just wonder what it's like at your dinner table at Thanksgivings.
Krohn: You know, my father is really someone that I've looked up to for as long as we started getting along, which was probably right after I fled the nest for college. [Laughs] My father was fighting in Vietnam on his second tour of duty when I was born and wrote a book called The Lost Battalion about the Tet Offensive battle of Hue. He wanted to serve his country one more time, so at the young age of 70 years old, he went to Baghdad to get involved with the reconstruction program. He wanted to apply the lessons he learned from Vietnam to Iraq. There were those in the administration that weren't students of history. He saw some of the same mistakes being made, came back to the United States and wrote about it in the Columbia Journalism Review and the Washington Post, and he and Rumsfeld had a little bit of a falling out, you could say. And he left the Pentagon. But I think not just because he's my father but because of the work of his I've read, some of his insights into what we needed to do in Iraq early on were so precise that had people listened and been more attentive to the facts as history lays them out, we might have not been in the position we're in today.
But the conversations around the dinner table are always provocative.
NJ: Your dad's book is very detailed and graphic, and I wonder if you remember what it was like the first time you read it.
Krohn: I was just, by the time I concluded the book, relieved that he's survived and lived to tell about it. It's such an important story. The crux of it is, I think, one of the biggest mistakes that the Rumsfeld team made in terms of light infantry support and the importance of ground combat.
NJ: When you left your job at Yahoo to go work for the RNC, you told the Washington Post that it was in reaction to 9/11. Is that why you left the tech world?
Krohn: It was twofold. I wanted to do something for my country after 9/11, and growing up an Army brat I just wanted to do something other than join the Army and wasn't sure what that would be. But when this opportunity presented itself, it just came clear that that was the avenue that I should take to fulfill that void in my life. I also felt rather strongly about Senator Clinton not becoming the president. And unbeknownst to all of us at the time, Senator Obama ran a masterful campaign and took down the Clinton machine.
NJ: If it was a reaction to 9/11, was it that much harder to leave the RNC? Politico reported that you lobbied to keep your job, which I think is just based on the fact that you had joined this Facebook group that was trying to keep you in your job.
Krohn: Just to be clear, I didn't initiate that Facebook group. It was organized by Mike Krempasky, Erick Erickson at RedState and Robert Bluey at Heritage Foundation. They were the founders of the group, according to the Facebook page. As a Facebook user, I joined my own group just because of the novelty of it. It was flattering. But for personal reasons, I wanted to relocate back to the Northwest and lay my roots here with three young children that I want to raise in the Pacific Northwest.
NJ: There were about 400 people on Facebook who were saying you should stay on at the RNC. Are you saying you weren't interested in staying on with Michael Steele as the leader? How did that play out?
Krohn: I was ready to relocate back to Seattle. And irrespective of the outcome of the presidential election, I most likely would have relocated back to Seattle. I think the changing of the guard both in the White House and at the RNC just created a little bit of an easier opportunity to bow out. But I do want to say that my successor, Todd Herman, who is overseeing new media at the RNC, is somebody I've known for a number of years. He'll do an exceptional job. I couldn't be happier with the fact the RNC hired Todd. He's one of the brightest people I know, and I think you'll see wonderful things coming out of the RNC in the coming years as he acclimates himself to the system.
NJ: I just want to make sure I'm clear. Last question on it. Did they ask you stay on at the RNC and you decided not to?
Krohn: That conversation never took place. I, on my own volition, chose to leave the organization at my own timing and on my own terms. We never had that discussion.
NJ: I heard that when you left, you said you were thinking about running for office. Is that right?
Krohn: I've been giving it some thought. But I really am not prepared to discuss it at this time. I've got a lot of thoughts running through my head right now, and I've just got to take some time to sort that all out.
NJ: At the RNC, there has been a lot of turnover of the position that heads up new media. It was Michael Turk first, and he had the job for less than a year. Patrick Ruffini held it for a little more than a year. Then you, and you were there about two years. Is it a job that can be done from year to year with different people?
Krohn: The short answer is no, you need someone there more than two years.... That's all predicated on the nature of the committee's elections. Every two years, there's an election, and with a new chairman comes a new staff....
I was giving a lot of thought to this during the waning days of the campaign. What I discovered is technological development cycles will always overlap with campaign cycles, and that's not conducive to having efficient technology, because when you're in campaign mode you're not going to want to deal with alpha or beta products or sit through the development of something that hasn't been tested.
NJ: So you really need the RNC or something like that to test it for them in advance?
Krohn: Or a third party. Somebody, though.
Say you want to completely rearchitect your systems. That could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, and ship dates slip and then you're in the 18-to-24-month range, and the campaign cycle always overlaps that -- and so it's a vicious cycle where what you really need is to incubate technology outside of the campaign apparatus and test it, and then integrate it, but not interrupt your campaign cycle with that implementation. That's probably, I think, the biggest hurdle to overcome.
NJ: You've already said you have a lot of confidence in your successor. Do you have any advice for him going forward on how to work with the chairman?
Krohn: I don't have any advice for my successor. Frankly, he's smarter than I am. [Laughs] He'll do a wonderful job. Maybe the best thing he could do at the committee would be to help temper Chairman Steele's comments when he feels he needs to speak freely.
NJ: I was wondering what you think of all that. His comments are getting a lot of play.
Krohn: I think first impressions are everything, and he could have come out of the gate a little bit differently.
NJ: More quietly?
Krohn: I'll leave that to your listeners.
NJ: Last question -- oh, the dangers of Facebook. I found a picture from an old yearbook in which they praised you for introducing your high school to modern dance. So it seems you were always on the edge of trends. What exactly are they talking about there?
Krohn: [Laughs] I went to Woodberry Forest School down in Orange, Virginia, for a brief period of time. It was an all-boys boarding school, and we had a modern dance troupe come and perform for us. As part of our talent show, my roommate and I tried to parody the modern dance performance we witnessed just a month or so earlier. It was met with rave reviews, so to speak.