Small dollars a big deal as GOP sees untapped potential in Trump supporters

Party effort to steer campaigns to new ‘WinRed’ system met with grumbles and suspicion

The Trump campaign has endorsed WinRed, the GOP’s new fundraising platform that the RNC is trying to get all campaigns to use. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Trump campaign has endorsed WinRed, the GOP’s new fundraising platform that the RNC is trying to get all campaigns to use. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 7, 2019 at 5:30am

Convinced there is untapped potential with conservative grassroots donors, Republicans have long bemoaned their lack of a fundraising tool for small-dollar donations as pervasive as the Democrats’ ActBlue. 

But since Republicans rolled out their own centralized platform earlier this year, there’s been grumbling within the party that the effort runs afoul of conservative free-market ideas. 

At the Republican National Committee’s annual summer meeting last week, Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel confronted rumors that she and others are insisting campaigns use the new platform, called WinRed, because they’re personally profiting from it.

WinRed is endorsed by President Donald Trump and all of the national GOP campaign committees. But it’s not the only platform on the right, and its rivals — even those that argue they don’t directly compete — are upset that the party apparatus is trying to freeze them out.

That tension is shedding light on differences between the new platforms that are trying to tap into the kind of small-dollar online fundraising that has boosted Democratic campaigns.

Playing catch-up

There’s a misconception among lawmakers, Republican operatives say, that Democratic voters are sitting at home Googling “ActBlue,” and that’s how it became such a behemoth fundraising tool.

That’s not the case. The secret lies in having massive email lists that push out links to ActBlue, which provides user-friendly technology that makes it easy for small-dollar donors to save their information and give recurring donations.

ActBlue wasn’t always the only game in town on the left. Other platforms, like NGP, processed online donations. But campaigns and causes on the left quickly coalesced around ActBlue because the donor response was so good.

“The likelihood that a donor would complete their donation and want to commit to monthly donations was higher because it was a quicker and easier process,” said Joshua Wolf, a veteran Democratic campaign manager.

“But the reason ActBlue worked so well for Democrats was it was natural to who our supporters were,” Wolf added. “For Republicans, the notion of cultivating this small-dollar donor base was never urgent for them.”

It is now.

Donors gave more than $1.6 billion to Democratic campaigns and causes through ActBlue in the 2018 midterm cycle, when Democrats picked up a net of 40 seats in the House. In the first six months of this year, donors gave $345 million, according to a report to the Federal Election Commission that runs nearly 8.6 million pages.

Republicans didn’t have an equivalent online fundraising platform, relying on several different competing platforms. After the 2018 elections, House and Senate GOP leadership and the White House agreed that had to change.

Their answer in January was a joint venture between Revv, a payment processor Trump used in 2016, and Data Trust, the voter file system used by the RNC. The original name, “Patriot Pass,” didn’t survive objections from New England’s professional football team.

The platform launched in June under its new name, and processed nearly $4 million in the last four days of July, a WinRed official said.

But that hasn’t come without some cajoling. The RNC is threatening to withhold resources from campaigns that choose another platform. The National Republican Congressional Committee said on Friday that over half of the GOP House members running for reelection are now using WinRed.

Frustrating the competition

The pressure for GOP campaigns and candidates to get on board with one platform is frustrating other companies. 

Earlier this year, the party tried to shut down a site called Give.GOP, objecting to its use of the .GOP domain and the RNC logo. The site, which has relaunched under the name Right.Us, is built for grassroots conservative donors, rather than for campaigns, allowing them to contribute to any campaign listed in its directory.

Its founder, Paul Dietzel, also founded Anedot, a payment processing  platform that many GOP campaigns and organizations, as well as some charities, churches and Democrats, have traditionally used. As of last week, more than 40 Republican state parties still used Anedot. But Anedot lost a handful of congressional clients to WinRed in the last week of July thanks to Republican campaign committees pressuring lawmakers to switch. 

And it’s not just other GOP platforms that feel they’re being frozen out by the RNC. A new bipartisan fundraising app called Prytany  is having trouble attracting clients.

Loading the player...

Its founders, which include one Republican, one Democrat and one independent, believe the RNC is intimidating their would-be clients. High-profile Democrats like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner are on the app, but the only federal GOP candidate on board is Hirsh Singh, who is running for Senate in New Jersey against Cory Booker.

“Free-market capitalism is a guiding principle of the Republican Party, and it’s unfortunate that the RNC is choosing to stifle free enterprise by forcing candidates to use their hand-picked fundraising platform,” said John Polis, the Republican co-founder of the app.

“We enjoyed our initial talks with the Republican Party, and hope that they will change course and allow candidates to utilize the fundraising platforms of their choosing,” Polis added.

How they work

WinRed was designed to mimic ActBlue. Both are set up as conduit PACs, which means they funnel donations from individuals to campaigns and causes.

ActBlue, a nonprofit, charges campaigns and organizations receiving contributions a 3.95 percent processing fee on each transaction. Donors can also leave tips on top of their contribution that go toward sustaining ActBlue.

WinRed charges a 3.8 percent, plus a 30 cent bank processing fee, for each transaction. Whatever profit is left over goes back to Data Trust and Revv, which is the source of some consternation among other Republican consultants who see the RNC’s partnership with WinRed as scheme that profits favored companies.

Revv was founded by former RNC digital strategist Gerrit Lansing, who’s previously come under scrutiny for having held dual roles at Revv and the RNC in 2016. The accusations were that Lansing, as an RNC official, pushed campaigns to use the platform, while personally benefiting from that business. He received a $909,000 payment from Revv in 2016, according to Politico.

UNITED STATES - MAY 17: Gerrit Lansing of the NRCC is photographed on Capitol Hill. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Gerrit Lansing, shown in 2012, is the president of WinRed and co-founder of Revv, one of the companies it’s built on. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Right.Us, the site designed for GOP donors, charges the processing fee to the donor, so campaigns receive 100 percent of each donation. It makes money when donors to subscribe to an “insider program” that provides them more information about campaigns. Anedot, Dietzel’s other company, makes money just like any other payment processor — it charges a transaction fee between 3 and 4 percent.

Prytany, the bipartisan app, touts a 3 percent fee on each transaction — lower than many other platforms. And like Right.Us, Prytany argues it’s a complement that empowers donors and is not a direct competitor to WinRed.

But the RNC argues that the more campaigns use WinRed, the stronger the platform will be. And they see it as the superior platform because it’s the one used by Trump, who can drive small-dollar donors to other down-ballot candidates.

“In little more than a month, WinRed has shown that it is well on its way to competing with ActBlue,” Lansing said in a statement.

“We’re clear-eyed about the 15-year head start they have, but thanks to President Trump and a united Republican Party, we’re well on our way towards finally solving this small-dollar donor problem.”