While many of us were taking the Summer off, myself included, and the GOP’s beltway consultants were busy conducting straw polls about the 2012 elections, a couple of guys in Virginia have been pounding the pavement, the blogs, Twitter and anything else they can get their hands on this year to give Republican candidates a jump start into the world of social media. Surveying the smoking aftermath of the 2008 elections, Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson of ProjectVirginia realized that the 2009 Virginia elections would be an opportunity for Republicans to move beyond just playing catch-up with the Democrats online. With the entire Virginia House of Delegates up for election this year, along with the statewide offices of Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General, Ford and Steve were able to plug into numerous races and experiment with social media at the local level (if that sounds reminiscent of what David Plouffe and David Axelrod did with Deval Patrick in 2006 as a dry run for the Obama campaign, you’ve got some insight into how these guys think). They’ve promised to share a progress report after the election on November 3.Ã¢â‚¬Â¨Ã¢â‚¬Â¨Working with 16 Republican campaigns in various capacities, ProjectVirginia sees social media as a mainstay for political communication for years to come. Even before they recap what they’ve learned this year in Virginia, it’s apparent that Ford and Steve are taking a different approach to getting candidates onboard with social media. For starters, ProjectVirginia isn’t a consulting shop; it’s a political action committee (PAC). While most PACs give away money, ProjectVirginia gives away social media tools. “If Republicans in Virginia and across the nation are to close the social media gap, they need to do more than just tentatively embrace these tools. Steve and I decided we needed to give the tools away to campaigns and help them use them to get the ball rolling this year.” O’Connell said. “We wanted to really push a number campaigns and felt that removing both the financial and technological barriers would help entice campaigns out of their comfort zones. Getting a critical mass of candidates using social media was important to demonstrate to future Republican campaigns that this is something that should be in the baseline of any campaign plan.” Ford and Steve liken social media to another core campaign strategy–door knocking. To be effective in both, campaigns have to make a serious time commitment by laying the foundation several months before the election. Like door knocking, there is no short cut or magic bullet with regard to social media. “Merely having a presence on social networking sites and sending press releases to new media outlets are not enough,” said Pearson. “For the past few years, the use of the technology was the story. Now, as the technology becomes more commonplace, the difference will be in the skill with which campaigns apply the constantly-changing set of tools at their disposal.” While the true impact of ProjectVirginia’s efforts will not be fully understood until after Nov.3rd, it is clear that the PAC is making a positive difference. Ford and Steve plan to continue working with Virginia Republicans beyond this year. They have also decided to expand their efforts beyond the Commonwealth. In fact, they have launched CivicForumPAC, an effort to help Republican candidates across the nation at the state and local level better use social media. So stay tuned.Jonathan Scott is president of the Liftline Group, a New England-based consulting and public relations firm. He is also the chairman of Ocean State Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.