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Exclusive: GOP reaches landmark agreement to juice small-dollar fundraising

Data Trust, the RNC’s clearinghouse of voter information, will form a joint venture with Revv, a donation processor used by the Trump campaign. The two entities will form the nucleus of Patriot Pass. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Elections

‘Patriot Pass’ is the Republican Party’s answer to ActBlue, Democrats’ online money behemoth.

Updated

President Donald Trump’s political team and top Republican officials have reached a landmark agreement to reshape the party’s fundraising apparatus and close the financial gap that devastated them in the midterms.

With the deal, Republicans hope to create a rival to ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising behemoth that plowed over $ 700 million in small-dollar donations into Democratic coffers in the 2018 campaign.

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Republicans have had no comparable centralized platform to cultivate small dollars. Since the election, officials including White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have privately insisted the party needed to come up with an answer.

Following weeks of closed-door discussions, Republicans have agreed to create a new platform dubbed Patriot Pass, which will be used to cultivate and process online donations. The GOP — whose jungle-like ecosystem of vendors has long fought bitterly over contracts and dollars — has struggled in the past to create such a unified system.

The accord, revealed for the first time to POLITICO by officials at the center of the effort, has received the explicit blessing of party leaders. Under the arrangement, Data Trust, the Republican National Committee’s designated clearinghouse of voter information, will form a joint venture with Revv, a donation processor used by the Trump campaign. The two entities will form the nucleus of Patriot Pass.

As part of the agreement, Victory Passport, a small-dollar platform used widely by Republican congressional candidates, is expected to eventually shutter and encourage its clients to use the new platform.

The far-reaching consolidation reflects the urgency confronting Republicans, who concede their widening small-donor deficit reached a breaking point in 2018. Fired-up liberal donors funneled cash into House and Senate races through ActBlue, a centralized and easy-to-use hub of Democratic giving that allows users to enter their credit card information and contribute to their candidate of choice with a click.

After watching dozens of their candidates get massively out-raised, Republicans are looking to Patriot Pass to close the gap. The new tool is is expected to launch next month. While party officials concede that catching up to or surpassing the 14-year-old ActBlue won’t happen immediately, they contend they can level the playing field through a platform that can mimic ActBlue’s technology.

“The Democrats clearly in congressional races — not at the presidential level but in congressional races in 2018 — had an advantage in small-dollar donors. And so you say, ‘Why is that? There was enthusiasm in both parties.’ And it’s because they had the mechanism to harness and add rocket fuel to that energy,” said Mike Shields, a Data Trust senior adviser.

“And so, this is a system that will take what has been disparate — campaigns and super PACs and different people that raise small-dollar donations — and put them together so that they aggregate on top of each other and add that same rocket fuel,” Shields added.

Those involved in the agreement stress that candidates won’t be required to use Patriot Pass; they’ll be free to use any other payment processors on the market. It remains to be seen how other firms not involved in the deal, such as Anedot, respond to the news.

Talks about launching an ActBlue counterweight began within days of the midterm drubbing. McConnell was particularly shocked by the millions North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp had raised through ActBlue, even as polls showed her heading toward defeat. During a post-election gathering at party headquarters, he promised GOP givers that he and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young (R-Ind.) had dispatched Josh Holmes, a top political adviser, to help find a solution.

Rep. Rodney Davis speaks during a rally.

McCarthy and newly tapped National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer, meanwhile, began having a series of discussions with House lawmakers and major party donors where the subject of creating an ActBlue counterweight arose frequently.

The midterms, McCarthy said an email, “showed how an immense resource gap can swamp effective members and promising candidates.”

Also calling for change was Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who pumped more than $ 100 million into the GOP’s midterm efforts and has long been relied upon by party leaders for big checks. Adelson made clear that Republicans needed to fix their small-donor woes.

Yet the party had long struggled to find an answer. While Democrats were united around ActBlue as a one-stop shop for small-dollar giving, Republicans had an array of small-donor vehicles overseen by vendors who were deeply protective of their financial interests.

Gerrit Lansing, Revv’s co-founder, said he came to a realize nearly six years ago while serving as the House GOP campaign arm’s top digital strategist that the party’s entities were simply too fragmented.

“I said, ‘We need to have one thing that does one thing only with the best technology that’s out there and that allows an adoption level that leads to great network effects and everyone understanding that they can benefit by getting on one platform,”’ he said. “And that thesis has proven true.”

What made that particularly challenging at the time, though, was the lack of a Republican president. The absence of a singular party leader exacerbated the decentralized, free-for-all nature of the GOP’s digital infrastructure.

Delegates cheer at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

When Trump won the presidency, party officials saw an opportunity. After the 2018 midterms, they began reaching out to the administration for assistance in mediating a deal.

Kushner, who took an interest in the project, deputized Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale to help oversee the discussions.

In the weeks to come, those involved in the deal met at Trump campaign headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia to hash out the final details.

Having Trump in the White House, Parscale said, has given “the opportunity for us to sit across the table from all the other leaders and say, ‘Let’s get together and make this better for the down-ticket.’”

Final details of how Patriot Pass will function are still being worked out. But those involved say it will have many of the same features as ActBlue. Visitors will be able to send one-click donations to their candidate of choice. Afterward, their screen will repopulate with suggestions of other campaigns to contribute to.

Designers also intend to create the capability for tandem fundraising, a mechanism that allows candidates to split their donations — and essentially tie themselves to — others who have widespread grass-roots support. House contenders, for example, will be able to send out solicitations asking for contributions for themselves and Trump.

Givers will be asked to pay a small processing fee comparable to the 3.95 percent-per-transaction fee imposed by ActBlue. Party officials say Data Trust will use revenues to make improvements to the platform.

Once a contribution is complete, the donor’s information will be appended to their voter files stored at Data Trust.

After spending months studying ActBlue, party officials say the new enterprise represents the GOP’s most aggressive effort yet to take on the Democratic juggernaut — and one they hope Republican candidates will use in 2020.

“It will take a culture change to bring us to the next level,” said Holmes. “But we now have the infrastructure that will allow us to compete at an even playing field.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated how much money the online platform ActBlue contributed to Democratic coffers in the 2018 midterms.

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