While working on combat veteran and Gold Star husband Joe Kentâ€™s campaign for Washington stateâ€™s 3rd Congressional District, I knew by early October we were in trouble.
We had overcome a $10 million deficit in the primaryâ€”owing almost entirely to Republicans backing the incumbentâ€”but that came at a cost. We had exhausted our $3 million war chest and went into the general election broke. Our Democratic opponent emerged from the primary unscathed with about $3 million cash on hand. We had about six weeks before voting began and we were ultimately outspent 6-to-1.
While Nancy Pelosiâ€™s super PAC spent a half-million dollars to boost the Democrat, we scrambled to find outside support.
We learned that the Republican National Committee was investing in field programs in Washington state and reached out, only to get a startling reply: Because our campaign had elected to use a third-party voter data vendor and door-to-door app, the RNC would not provide ground support as a matter of policy.
I was dumbfounded. Perhaps they were concerned that valuable identification data would be lost if we used another program. But I was still rebuffed when I offered to return all of that data to them so they could match it back into their system.
And unfortunately, we went on to lose by less than one percentage point a race that very easily could have cost Republicans control of the U.S. House. Most heartbreaking was that a few extra field organizers would have helped us get the 2,629 additional votes we needed among the mostly rural 80,000 Republican voters who failed to cast a ballot.
Apart from the lack of wisdom behind the RNCâ€™s policy, the situation raises another question: Why did we elect to spend several thousand dollars on a third-party data and app solution instead of using the RNCâ€™s free voter data-and-door app?
The answer illuminates a problem that goes well beyond a single U.S. House race and reveals a systematic failure affecting every Republican candidate and party organization in the country.
The RNC is responsible for two technology platforms that it makes available to state parties and campaigns: voter data, which is managed by their designated vendor, Data Trust, and online fundraising, which is managed by another designated vendor, WinRed.
It became clear to me that the RNCâ€™s primary goal with using those platforms wasnâ€™t to help Republican candidates so much as to enrich RNC-connected consultants.
These platforms arguably are costing Republicans elections and ripping off our candidates. The time to fix this problem is now.
Throwing Away Our Lead on Voter Data
When I first came to Washington, D.C., fresh out of high school in the summer of 1996, I got a job at the Republican National Committee working in the political analysis department, which was, at the time, home to a state-of-the-art project that would give Republicans a substantial electoral advantage over the next 12 years.
Until then, voter databases were developed by a hodgepodge of small vendors, state parties, and campaigns.
But then-RNC Chairman Haley Barbour imagined a way of internalizing and nationalizing within the RNC a voter database for all 50 states. I had the good fortune of cutting my teeth working with the team that executed Barbourâ€™s vision.
While our product was not as sophisticated as the data mined, psychographic mapped voter data products of today, it was substantially better than what the Democrats had at the time and, in clutch elections that were decided by just a few points, this more efficient and intelligent system carried elections for Republicans all over the country.
In 2008, the technology-driven campaign of Barack Obama and innovations in the DNC closed the technology gap at a time when GOP voter data operations began to stagnate.
Voter file development shifted to an outside organization, Data Trust, and since then, quality control and innovation have gone sharply downhill.
RNC Voter Data Lags Behind
In the 2022 cycle, I worked on 16 different campaigns all over the country. And what I hear from campaigns and county parties on the front lines of the battle for our nationâ€™s future is universal disgust with the quality of the â€œfreeâ€ voter data provided by the RNC.
One gubernatorial campaign I was helping out switched from RNC data to a third-party vendor for their volunteer phone program and saw their response rates go from 60 percent to 80 percent.
County parties are notoriously short of cash, but one in Virginia still spent money on third-party voter data for a special election because local party officials were tired of their direct mail bouncing. Another county in Wisconsin is doing the same thing because their volunteers chronically complain about being directed to knock on the doors of homes where the target voter has long since moved away or died.
And while the RNC mandates states to â€œbuy-inâ€ to their voter data to receive funding, Californiaâ€™s party sought and obtained a special exemption from this rule so it could spend tens of thousands of dollars on voter data from a third-party instead of relying on the free data RNC provides.(1)
While the interfaces from third-party vendors are fast, engaging, and intuitive, the two interface options for RNC data, GOP Data Center and Delphi, look like they were designed in the â€™90s and have the speed of a dial-up internet connection to match.
A relatively simple task like exporting a household mailing list for all Republican voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election but not in the last midterm takes a couple of seconds on third-party alternatives. The process on the RNCâ€™s platforms is cumbersome and slow.
The RNCâ€™s designated door-to-door app, Campaign Sidekick, is also a failure. (2) I recently spoke with the voter data specialist in a large and important Wisconsin county who shared that he had spent dozens of hours developing â€œwalk booksâ€ for volunteers in Campaign Sidekick that targeted specific school districts. His relief was indescribable when I showed him a third-party walk app that could do all of that work in minutes.
Another consultant I work with spent days trying to get the Campaign Sidekick team to load the correct data into the app so volunteers could get started on a critical statewide race. Because all this work had to be done by the app developerâ€™s data team and they were jammed up at the peak of the 2022 election season, volunteers had to cool their heels for nearly a week.
When I showed this same consultant an alternative app that allowed the campaign to manage all of this data directly and immediately get volunteers into the field, he vowed never to touch Sidekick again on any campaign that could scrape together the money to pay for this alternative.
The nightmare of working with the RNCâ€™s voter data and app is a near-universal story around the country. Talk to almost any county party chairman or campaign manager. The upshot is the same: this platform and the RNC strong-arming Republicans to use it is costing us elections.
The Trouble with WinRed
The RNCâ€™s designated payment processor, WinRed, is a for-profit company that built its platform on top of another for-profit payment processor, Stripe. The companyâ€™s revenues are derived from a fee of 3.94 percent on every campaign donation it processes.
This is a much higher fee than a campaign would pay by setting up a merchant account for credit card processing that would charge less than half that and often as little as 0.05 percent per transaction, depending on the card type.
The trouble with using Stripe is that it is a woke tech firm based in San Francisco. In the 2022 election cycle, of the $392,000 that Stripe employees donated to federal candidates and PACs, 98 percent went to Democrats, while just 2 percent went to Republicans.
Unfortunately, a great many Republican or right-leaning businesses rely on Stripeâ€”including Donald Trumpâ€™s 2020 presidential campaign. The danger of building a partyâ€™s fundraising platform on a payment processor openly hostile to us was made clear when Stripe shut down Trumpâ€™s account in the days following the January 6, 2021 Capitol protest, foreclosing a vital channel for raising money to fight his post-election legal battles.
Stripe shut down Trumpâ€™s account because, according to the firm, he was â€œinciting violenceâ€ with his rhetoric. But according to leftists like the employees who run Stripe, all Republican policies incite violence against homosexuals, minorities, immigrants, women, etc., thus no Republican is safe from having his or her finances cut off with no notice from these left-wing Big Tech extremists.
And what did the RNC do in response to their own payment processor shutting down President Trumpâ€™s account?
Facilitating the RevShare Fraud
Most donors may not know that often 80 or 90 percent of the contributions processed by WinRed do not go to the candidate or campaign but rather to fundraising consultants. This â€œRevShareâ€ mechanism is built into WinRed and delivers the consultantâ€™s cut instantly without the donor ever knowingâ€”on top of the 3.94 percent that WinRed collects.
Itâ€™s even built into the â€œpanelsâ€ a donor sees after making an initial donation (allegedly to one candidate) and encouraging that donor to give to additional candidates.
Is the RNC willing to look their donors in the eye and tell them, â€œYes, of that $100 you donated, using the platform we built, your candidate only got $6 while our favored consultants took $90â€? How would donors react if they knew that was happening to their contributions? How would they react if they knew the RNC was facilitating that scam?
Alternatively, how many elections would we have won if our candidates werenâ€™t being looted by consultants?
The Answer to All Our Problems
The poisonous root underlying all of these problems is that the RNC prioritized generating profits for consultants over helping our candidates win. There is no limit to what the RNC can do if its leaders cared more about victory and much, much less about lining consultantsâ€™ pockets.
To improve our partyâ€™s voter data, the RNC should audit the quality of several third-party vendors and then contract with the best option to create a customized, branded portal that siloes our candidatesâ€™ data. Supplement that by building out an internal team at RNC that can provide support and training in deploying the data. Similarly, audit the available apps and contract with the best app maker to create and expand a special version for the RNC to deploy.
Break WinRed away from Stripe and instead partner with a merchant account provider so that each campaign is issued its own merchant account thatâ€™s virtually impossible to cancel and delivers the lowest rate possible. Fund the operation by asking donors to chip in a few extra dollars at checkout.
End the RevShare scam by building an online cooperative where our candidates can exchange lists and then split revenue not with consultants but with each other in a transparent way.
There are countless other ways an RNC not focused on profits (or pissing off greedy consultants) can boost our candidates. One of the biggest consultant scams is pocketing the 15 percent rebate media outlets pay them for ad placement. The RNC could build out an ad placement platform that ensures when a candidate buys $100,000 in TV or radio ads, theyâ€™re really getting $100,000 in ads.
Response of the Candidates for RNC Chairman
The power to solve these issues lies almost entirely in the hands of the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Iâ€™ve shared my criticisms and solutions with each of the two candidates running and gotten different responses.
When I spoke with Harmeet Dhillon, she understood the problems, was as outraged as I was, and was also eager to come up with solutions.
When I raised these issues to the current chairman, Ronna McDaniel, at the RNC winter meeting two years ago, she responded by ignoring me and telling a closed-door meeting of the RNC members that everything was fine.
While some of the solutions Iâ€™ve suggested are novel, the problems they address are well- known to candidates, party leaders, and campaign operatives in every state. And for the first time in a dozen years, the Republican National Committee members will have the opportunity to choose a chair who can do something about it.
I urge them all to consider their choice carefully and to put the future of our party and the country first.
(1) In 2021, the California GOP reverted to using Data Trust after their preferred voter data service, PDI, decided to work exclusively for Democrats. https://capitolweekly.net/major-political-data-firm-shuts-door- on-republicansv/.
(2) The majority of states have elected to use Campaign Sidekick as their designated app, however the alternative app, Advantage, has had similar quality criticisms from those I know whoâ€™ve worked with it. Iâ€™m also informed there are two other apps in beta-testing. Nonetheless, these apps must be sanctioned by RNC/Data Trust.
Matt Braynard is the former director of Strategy and Data for President Trumpâ€™s â€™16 campaign and served on four additional presidential campaigns and worked on countless down-ballot races over the last thirty years. He served three cycles on the Republican National Committeeâ€™s staff in â€™96, â€™98, and â€™00.