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Politics

Political Cybersquatter Strikes Again

He leverages Web domains for political access. His latest targets: Alison Lundergan Grimes and Obama’s Organizing for Action.

(iStock)

Alison Lundergan Grimes had no website the day she announced her bid for the Senate in Kentucky last week. So curious supporters and would-be donors who typed in two of the likeliest locales for her digital home—alisonforsenate.com and grimesforsenate.com—instead landed on pages that were mostly blank. All that appeared were the domain names spelled out in big boxy blue font and an e-mail address listed “for inquiries.”

Michael Deutsch had struck again.

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes (AP Photo/Roger Alford)

The little-known Florida resident has made it something of a hobby to snatch away desirable digital destinations from unwitting politicians. In that regard, Grimes is in heady company. In the past 15 years, Deutsch has snapped up Web properties of value to the likes of President George W. Bush; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; then-Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn.; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and even President Obama’s new political advocacy group—just to name a few.

 

Deutsch isn’t in it for the money. He’s just a self-described “C-SPAN junkie” who says he wants “a chance to look behind the curtain.” And he learned more than a decade ago that, as a man without the wealth to buy his way into intimate fundraisers, his best shot at getting close to the political stars that so fascinate him was to buy up political domain names early and leverage them later for some face time.

“I do this because I’m interested in the political process and seeing things you can’t see on TV,” he says.

Cybersquatting—though Deutsch doesn’t much care for the term—has been just the ticket. He says it has landed him everywhere from a backyard barbecue in Oklahoma with a gubernatorial candidate to VIP access to a presidential rally to a whistle-stop tour across Connecticut. In between, he has engaged in delicate negotiations with multiple presidential campaigns and been brought to a cybercourt of sorts by the Obama political operation—where he prevailed.

At first, Deutsch was reluctant to talk about his exploits in the online political realm. “No comment,” our first conversation began. But he eventually decided to share. “It’s unfortunate that dollars create access and that fundraising is such a large part of the political process,” he told National Journal. “This is my way of circumventing that.”

It all started in the late 1990s, when Deutsch registered a potential landing page for McCain’s not-yet-hatched 2000 presidential campaign—mccain2000.org. Negotiations began with McCain advisers for Deutsch to turn over the domain—and what he’d receive in exchange.

“At one point, they had invited me to go on the announcement-day tour of, I believe, five states via airplane,” Deutsch says. “But they canceled that because of an outbreak of hostilities [in Kosovo].” Talks collapsed after that. Max Fose, who was McCain’s 2000 Internet manager, remembered discussions with Deutsch were “touchy at times” but couldn’t recall exactly how the episode had been resolved.

HANDICAPPER

Though his rendezvous with McCain never came to fruition, the lesson was clear: Domains, purchased for as little as $10 a pop, could pay huge political dividends. So when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore tapped Lieberman as his running mate in the summer of 2000, Deutsch immediately bought Lieberman2004.com (and the .net and .org versions)—just in case the Gore-Lieberman ticket lost and Lieberman wanted to make his own go of it four years later.

The bet paid off. Within a couple of years, Deutsch found himself in talks with top Lieberman officials about trading the domains for time on the trail. “He was a very easy to deal with,” says Sherry Brown, Lieberman’s then-chief of staff and executive director of his federal PAC. “And we were a little suspicious at first.”

They settled on a deal: Deutsch would return the domains, at cost, in exchange for a day with the senator campaigning in Connecticut. “I enjoyed it immensely,” Deutsch recalls.

Ahead of the 2004 presidential race, Deutsch had also secured bushcheney2004.com. He says he traded that for special access to a presidential rally. (Bush e-campaign director Chuck DeFeo couldn’t recall Deutsch specifically, but says the campaign did deals to swap Web domains from supporters for, say, a presidential rope-line handshake or VIP seats at an event.)

Deutsch still fondly recalls the experience. “It’s very nice to see three different presidential helicopters fly in. You may see that every day in Washington, but for me it was awe-inspiring,” he says.

In 2002, Deutsch traded a domain to then-Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., during his bid for governor. “He turned it over to us with the understanding he could follow us around for a day on the trail,” said then-Largent adviser Nate Webb.

Deutsch flew to Oklahoma, on his own dime, to tour the state with Largent, including an intimate backyard barbecue. “I’m old enough where a handshake and an autographed picture is less interesting than seeing what goes on behind the scenes,” he says. “On TV you see 30 seconds of a campaign appearance. You don’t see a full day of speeches, going to parades, and shaking hands. It’s a physically grueling process for candidates.”

Deutsch, who used to live in New Jersey, is a registered Republican but has gobbled up domains of politicians of all stripes. He was reluctant to talk much about himself except to say that he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he says he studied economics and engineering. Though he now invests in campaign domain names, he once held a seat at the American Stock Exchange, where he was an individual member.

STRIKE EARLY, STRIKE OFTEN

The key with domain names, as with most investing, is to buy low and sell high—and sometimes to act fast.

Deutsch registered the two Senate sites related to Grims, for instance, in late March, right around the time when actress Ashley Judd decided not to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and when Grimes emerged as the top remaining Democratic recruit.

He watches all the cable news networks to keep pace with political happenings. But, Deutsch says, “C-SPAN, I find the most enjoyable.”

Just how avid of a political news consumer is Deutsch? While Washington was chattering this week about a New York Times story that said Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, might challenge Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., Deutsch picked up on the possibility much earlier: He has owned the domain name cheneyforsenate.com for several years, according to DomainTools.com, which tracks registration data.

Another example of Deutsch’s insatiable political appetite and quirky sensibility: He owns both simpsonbowles.com and bowlessimpson.com—named after the two former heads of the president’s deficit-reduction commission. The sites are decorated with an image of Homer Simpson tossing a bowling ball.

Domains aren’t free. To fund his political purchases, Deutsch buys and sells apolitical sites for profit. He has bought more than 1,800 domain names over the years, according to DomainTools, everything from naturalcondom.com to yankeestadium.com to drinkmilk.com. Deutsch sounds especially excited about flipping stemcellresearch.com, “which is very valuable,” he insists. 

“I sell enough to cover the cost of my hobby,” he says.

That hobby has often focused often on predicting presidential tickets. While the money he spent on sites like giulianipawlenty.com, allenforpresident.com, gore08.com, and mccainhuckabee.com went for naught, he nearly hit the jackpot in 2004.

That year, he was sitting on kerrygephardt.com when the New York Post reported—incorrectly—that Dick Gephardt was the Democratic vice presidential pick. When John Edwards emerged as the actual choice, Deutsch went from elated to deflated in less than 24 hours. (He owned kerryedwards2004.com, but the campaign never sought it from him.) “I still have a copy of the Post,” a nostalgic Deutsch says.

OFA’S BIG MISTAKE

This January, Deutsch caught what he calls “the worst mistake I’ve ever seen.”

Before President Obama’s advisers announced turning the remnants of his reelection campaign into a new nonprofit, Organizing for Action, they had failed to secure its most obvious digital homes. Deutsch beat them to the punch and snatched up organizingforaction.com and organizingforaction.org.

“Ultimately, they realized their blunder and they were not very happy about it,” Deutsch says.

OFA’s legal team counterpunched on Feb. 1, accusing Deutsch of breaching their trademark in a complaint before the National Arbitration Forum, records show. A three-person panel of arbiters sided with Deutsch, noting that the group’s name had been in “use for little more than a fortnight.”

OFA did not respond to requests for comment.

While Deutsch presents himself as a benevolent squatter, those who cross him can face digital rebukes. Organizingforaction.com and its sister .org site are topped by a flashing siren and feature an anti-OFA polemic. “Welcome to the REAL OrganizingForAction.com,” the site says. Or, go to the Deutsch-owned McCain2008.com site and be redirected to an unflattering 2010 profile of the Arizona senator in Vanity Fair.

Grimes, meanwhile, has since launched her own official website at alisonforky.com. Deutsch says he still hasn’t heard from her campaign about the pair of sites that he owns.

“I’ve received several e-mails from people who want to contribute money and volunteer,” Deutsch says. “I’d be happy to forward these e-mails to the campaign but I don’t know where to send them.”

It’s not clear how much longer Deutsch’s political parlor trick can last. For one, politicians are savvier about the Web these days. For another, browsing habits have changed dramatically since the pre-Google 1990s. Now, people are just as likely, if not more so, to type a politician’s name into a search engine as they are to guess a campaign’s URL.

Maybe that’s why Deutsch hasn’t heard a peep from either the 2013 gubernatorial campaigns of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia or Chris Christie in New Jersey, despite owning both mcauliffeforgovernor.com and christieforgovernor.com.

Deutsch is not discouraged. He is looking ahead to 2016. One of his earliest possessions: jeb16.com.

This article appears in the July 10, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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