BALTIMORE — House Republicans sparred behind closed doors with Trump-aligned political operatives at a GOP retreat over the new online fundraising platform backed by party leaders and the White House.
The fight Thursday over WinRed’s data and competitiveness highlights long simmering tensions between GOP lawmakers and operatives allied with the president, and underscores the growing frustrations in the party as they try to hash out a strategy to win back the House next year.
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The creation of WinRed was a top priority for the GOP that has been plagued with implementation problems over the last year. If the initiative isn’t a success, Republicans fear their chances of taking back the House and holding on to the White House in 2020 will be imperiled.
During a testy exchange on the first day of the House GOP’s annual retreat, members expressed misgivings with WinRed, a small donor apparatus designed to compete with the Democrats’ online fundraising behemoth ActBlue that was launched this summer by the national campaign arms after months of delays.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) specifically raised concerns about data sharing, while other lawmakers were confused with how the operation works and pressed operatives for more information about the fundraising tool, according to aides and lawmakers who were present.
Stefanik, who formerly led recruitment efforts for the GOP’s campaign arm, pressed WinRed president Gerrit Lansing about whether lawmakers who use the apparatus would have to share their data with other people and questioned how it could be protected, several sources said.
Lansing tried to assure lawmakers that their data is their own. But Stefanik expressed worry that once information is shared with the RNC’s clearinghouse for voter information, Data Trust, other people — including primary opponents — can access it. Lansing however, warned members that if they don’t build their donor files, they risk getting crushed by ActBlue again.
But Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson, who said he previously worked in IT, accused operatives of not knowing what they are talking about, according to sources.
Several years ago, questions were raised about Lansing’s business practices after Republican political operatives said he urged them to use a company he co-founded, Revv, to collect online donations after he was hired for a top position in the RNC. He subsequently received a nearly $1 million payout from Revv.
Some party operatives, however, pushed back on some of the concerns raised by members.
“Does Elise Stefanik think it’s a bad thing for a female candidate looking to primary Steve King to have access to WinRed?” said one GOP strategist who also attended Thursday’s political session.
Trump’s political team and Republican congressional leaders hope WinRed will compete with ActBlue, which has given Democrats’ a massive small-donor money advantage ahead of the 2020 election, and have been putting pressure on rank-and-file members to integrate with the vehicle.
The RNC has even threatened to withhold support from party candidates who refuse to use WinRed.
“We have been getting our clocks cleaned for years by ActBlue and we finally have a solution to compete,” said Chris Pack, spokesman for National Republican Congressional Committee. “We encourage members to enter the online marketplace and use all the data and resources available to defeat any potential primary challenger.”
Prior to Lansing’s briefing on WinRed, Trump’s campaign director Brad Parscale gave a presentation to members on 2020. Later in the night, Trump gave a speech to GOP lawmakers in the ballroom of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront.
GOP leaders who gathered here in Baltimore have tried to paint a rosy picture for Republicans, who are coming off a bruising midterm election and have been rattled by a recent wave of retirements.
But privately, members acknowledge that it’s going to be extremely difficult to flip the 19 seats they need to seize back power, especially amid mounting anxiety about the economy and the president’s trade war.
GOP lawmakers also say they are feeling more pressure to compete with Democrats in the small donor space, something that party leaders hope WinRed will address. So far, over 140 house campaigns, 46 senate campaigns and 45 state parties are on board and active with the new digital platform.
WinRed was launched this summer after months of behind-the-scenes discussions involving top Republicans. Trump and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner were involved, as were GOP congressional leaders and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
But ironing out the legal details of the deal, with so many players involved who’d been operating previously on separate tracks, proved a heavy lift. The launch had been initially planned for February, though it didn’t get off the ground until late June.
The delay caused considerable angst within some corners of the party, particularly among House Republicans who worry Democrats will again financially outgun them in the coming election. While Trump’s political machine and Senate Republicans have been outpacing their Democratic rivals this year, the House GOP campaign arm has trailed its Democratic counterpart.
One of the hiccups surrounded the name of the platform. Republican officials originally dubbed the platform “Patriot Pass.” But the name had to be changed because New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft — a top ally to Trump — complained to the president that it sounded too similar to his NFL team.
Since launching, WinRed has come under fire from critics who have questioned who stands to profit from the donations it gathers, forcing RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel to defend the platform during a heated meeting with GOP officials.
And the RNC, along with the party’s Senate and gubernatorial campaign arms, has threatened legal action against a rival donation vehicle – a move that illustrates how Republican leaders are waging a determined campaign to make WinRed the sole provider of its small donor infrastructure.
Jake Sherman and Alex Isenstadt contributed to this story.