Hooked on Trump: How the GOP still banks on his brand for cash

Hooked on Trump: How the GOP still banks on his brand for cash

Even in defeat, nothing sells in the Republican Party quite like Donald Trump.

The Republican National Committee has been dangling a “Trump Life Membership” to entice small contributors to give online. The party’s Senate campaign arm has been hawking an “Official Trump Majority Membership.” And the committee devoted to winning back the House has been touting Trump’s nearly every public utterance, talking up a nonexistent Trump social media network and urging donations to “retake Trump’s Majority.”

Six months after Trump left office, the key to online fundraising success for the Republican Party in 2021 can largely be summed up in the three words it used to identify the sender of a recent email solicitation: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

The fundraising language of party committees is among the most finely tuned messaging in politics, with every word designed to motivate more people to give more money online. And all that testing has yielded Trump-themed gimmicks and giveaways including Trump pint glasses, Trump-signed pictures, Trump event tickets and Trump T-shirts – just from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the month of July.

“The Republican Party has never had small-dollar fundraising at this scale before Donald Trump,” said Brad Parscale, who was Trump’s first campaign manager in 2020 and is still an adviser, “and they probably never will at this scale after Donald Trump.”

The strategy is clearly paying financial dividends, as three main Republican federal committees raised a combined $134.8 million from direct individual contributions in the first six months of 2021, nearly matching the $136.2 million raised by the equivalent Democratic committees, federal records show.

But the endless invocations of the former president underscore not only his enduring appeal to online Republican activists and donors – the base of the party’s base and its financial engine – but also the unlikelihood that the party apparatus wants to, or even can, meaningfully break from him for the foreseeable future.

The stark reliance on Trump’s name to spur small donations amounts to a tangible expression of the party’s inescapable dependency on him – one that risks preventing a reckoning over the losses the GOP suffered in the last four years, including Trump’s own, which he has denied by clinging to false theories of election fraud.

Republican strategists said the party’s messaging and the influx of money reflect Trump’s continued hold on the hearts and wallets of the grassroots, despite the party losing the House, the Senate and the White House in his single term.

“The governing class of the Republican Party would just as well see him move on,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist and former top political adviser for the US Chamber of Commerce. “It’s been ‘enough is enough.’ But he still keeps a firm grip on the grassroots.”

With Democrats in full control of Washington, some Republicans are hoping their party can rally chiefly against President Joe Biden and the Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Yet Biden’s name has been as absent from the Republican pleas for cash as Trump has been pervasive, a warning sign that Republicans are struggling to stir the kind of impassioned opposition to him that they had once generated to former President Barack Obama, and that Democrats had uniting their party against Trump four years ago.

Since May 1, the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm has invoked Biden’s name in the sender line on its emails just four times; Trump’s name has appeared there 185 times.

The Republican National Committee treated Trump’s June 14 birthday almost like a national holiday, sending out no less than 19 emails about it, starting more than five weeks in advance. The House campaign arm joined in, too: “Why haven’t you signed Trump’s Bday Card?!” read one text message. “We’ve texted 6x & it’s only 5 days away!”

The heavy use of Trump’s name has at times been a source of friction with the former president, who has begun ramping up fundraising for his own political action committee, called Save America. As a businessman, Trump spent years leveraging and licensing his name for cash, slapping it on buildings and products, and he and some of his advisers have been irked by the exploitation of his image by party committees that do not always align with his political interests.

In March, his lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to the three main Republican committees demanding they stop using his name and likeness. But back-channel discussions defused the situation as party officials insisted they had every right to refer to him but promised not to use his signature without permission. Still, some party committees continue to push the limits by wording messages to appear as if they are coming from Trump.

Current and past party operatives said Trump’s name simply raises the most money. Every click and contribution is carefully cataloged, and committees can compare how much is raised using different messages and messengers. Those with Trump’s name simply outperform, operatives said.

“President Trump and his policies remain a major driver for small-dollar donors,” said Michael McAdams, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

During one stretch in June, roughly 90% of that committee’s fundraising texts mentioned Trump. Some solicitations have appealed to supporters’ love of Trump; others have tapped into their fear of disappointing him.

At one point this spring, the committee warned donors against opting out of recurring monthly contributions through a prechecked box: “If you UNCHECK this box, we will have to tell Trump you’re a DEFECTOR.”

In a late 2020 memo, WinRed, the party’s main online donation-processing platform, said that donation pages that mentioned the word “Trump” reaped, on average, twice as many donors as pages that did not. WinRed still gives Trump top billing on its home page, featuring him above the actual party committees. Trump also continues to be featured prominently in many Democratic fundraising pitches.

While former presidents do typically maintain a following among the grassroots, Trump is uniquely omnipresent in the Republican digital ecosystem. Tim Cameron, a Republican digital strategist, said one reason is that much of the Republican online donating infrastructure sprang up during the Trump era – after years of neglect and being outraised by the Democrats. “It’s how these lists were built,” he said.

Hogan Gidley, who worked as an adviser to Trump at the White House, said the party – which still is populated by vestiges of a Trump-skeptical establishment that sees his incendiary approach to politics as a poor fit for swing districts and states – risks backlash and anger if it uses the Trump brand to bankroll causes and candidates not aligned with the pro-Trump movement.

“This is where the party is,” Gidley said. “You can ride that wave or you can try to swim against it, but the wave is going to win.”

Trump and the party are sometimes directly at odds.

The party’s Senate campaign arm, for instance, is supporting the reelection of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who voted to convict Trump of impeachable offenses. Trump is supporting her challenger, Kelly Tshibaka. Trump has also regularly attacked Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, including in a speech to party donors this spring, calling him a “stone cold loser.”

McConnell has ignored the slights. The online store of the party committee charged with returning McConnell to the majority currently has 21 of 23 items for sale featuring Trump’s name or face; zero feature McConnell.

The party’s Senate committee has also hired Gary Coby, the architect of Trump’s 2020 digital operation who continues to work with Trump, as a fundraising consultant, according to people familiar with the matter.

Trump has begun ramping up his fundraising operation, sending regular texts and emails that effectively compete with the party apparatus. Trump’s PAC is back advertising on Facebook, too, even as the platform has banned Trump from posting there himself.

Of all the party organizations, the Republican National Committee has perhaps the trickiest line to toe because it is charged with neutrally overseeing the 2024 presidential nomination process, whether or not Trump runs.

The RNC worked in tandem with the Trump reelection campaign last year, raising hundreds of millions of dollars through shared accounts. A New York Times investigation in April showed how the Trump operation had used prechecked recurring donation boxes to lure unwitting donors into giving again and again – resulting in a wave of fraud complaints and demands for refunds.

It turns out that some donations-on-autopilot continued all the way through June 2021, when party officials stopped processing donations to their shared account, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. That account raised $2.6 million in June almost entirely through recurring donations, according to a person familiar with the matter, of which 75% was earmarked for Trump’s PAC and 25% to the RNC.

But though those donations were stopped, the Trump messaging has continued, with the party hawking “Back to Back Trump Voter” shirts in recent days – yours “FREE” with a $50 donation.

“He’s so good for small-dollar fundraising,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Trump in the past. “The party cannot financially afford to separate.”

[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]

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