On Fox News Thursday night, Rep. Elise Stefanik made sure to tell viewers about a website where they could “step up” and donate to her campaign. After her appearance, the New York Republican announced she raised a staggering $500,000 in less than two hours.
Stefanik’s fundraising push is an early test of whether House Republicans, using a new online fundraising platform Stefanik once questioned, can capitalize on national attention to bring in campaign cash.
Two months ago, Stefanik raised concerns about the platform, called WinRed. Republicans recently developed WinRed to counter ActBlue, a platform through which small dollar donors sent millions to Democratic congressional candidates in 2018. The so-called green wave overwhelmed Republicans and helped Democrats flip the House.
But now Stefanik is using the platform to take advantage of newfound attention. She is one of the breakout members of the House Intelligence Committee, which began public hearings in its impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump last week.
On Fox News Friday morning Trump said Stefanik “has become a star.”
Stefanik’s campaign has declined to say how much she has raised since the hearings started, but if Thursday night is any indication, she could post a big number for the year’s final fundraising quarter, which ends Dec. 31.
“I think when people understand how much money she’s raised through WinRed, it’ll blow them away,” said WinRed president Gerrit Lansing. “None of that was possible without being on the platform.”
Seizing the moment
Stefanik’s rapid ascent to national prominence has provided the most high-profile test yet of how Republicans can use WinRed to help themselves and other candidates.
“Help Elise Stefanik,” read a subject line from a fundraising email for Genevieve Collins, a GOP candidate in Texas’ 32nd District who Stefanik has endorsed through her leadership PAC. The email directs donors to a webpage where they can donate to Stefanik and Collins. Other candidates, including Stephanie Bice in Oklahoma’s 5th District, Lynn Homrich in Georgia’s 7th District, Minnesota Rep and Pete Stauber have sent similar emails. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in addition to his emails supporting Stefanik, is hosting a December fundraiser for her.
A WinRed official said roughly 50 campaigns are sending similar pitches with links to conduit webpages, which allow donors to split donations between the GOP candidate sending the email and Stefanik.
It’s a tactic Democrats have used successfully that Republicans are trying to replicate. Stefanik’s likely Democratic opponent, former county legislator Tedra Cobb, raked in $1 million last weekend alone after the hearings started.
Stefanik’s reelection race in Upstate New York is not considered competitive given that Trump won the 21st District by 14 points in 2016 and Stefanik easily defeated Cobb in 2018. But with a national spotlight on the race, Cobb has raked in money that could go a long way to reaching voters in the expansive district’s four media markets.
While there is no indication yet she is in trouble, a pro-Republican group began running television and digital ads this week to thank Stefanik for her role in the impeachment hearings.
Whether Stefanik can match the grassroots success Cobb had will be an early test for whether WinRed can help direct the energy among the small-dollar donors who have backed Trump towards down-ballot Republicans. Trump and the RNC have raked in record amounts, while Republicans have lagged behind Democrats in congressional races.
Two-thirds of House Republicans, 80 percent of GOP senators and 95 percent of Republican state parties are already using WinRed, according to Lansing. But Stefanik’s success could spur GOP campaigns to utilize more conduit emails and hone tactics for capitalizing on national news stories.
“I think this is going to kick off real inflection point where people understand how much benefit they can get from the platform,” Lansing said. “So I think this is a real line in the sand for how campaigns will operate going forward.”
Just two months ago, Stefanik questioned the WinRed platform at a Republican retreat. Stefanik raised concerns about whether a campaign’s own data would be shared with other campaigns, Politico reported. Others have questioned whether Republican National Committee officials were profiting off of WinRed and criticized the party for effectively freezing out other platforms.
Party officials have tried to quell those concerns by explaining how the platform works. Lansing said he has met with most of the GOP conference at this point and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Thursday that the party has been in conversation with House members.
McDaniel name-checked Stefanik as a former WinRed skeptic who has found the platform helpful, especially in recent days. Stefanik’s campaign spokesman Lenny Alcivar said WinRed officials addressed her concerns and that she signed onto the platform after the September retreat.
Ohio GOP Rep. Bill Johnson also reportedly raised concerns at the retreat, but he has since started using the platform. An adviser to Johnson’s campaign said Johnson received an “in depth” briefing from WinRed officials. The adviser said Johnson has encouraged other members to participate in a similar briefing and Johnson even made his own PowerPoint presentation on WinRed for other members of the conference.
Republicans acknowledge they are still educating campaigns on how to use the platform and note they will not be able to match the money flowing through ActBlue. GOP candidates raised more than $30 million through WinRed in the most recent fundraising quarter from July 1 through Sept. 30, the first full quarter for the platform. During the same period, donors sent $297 million to Democratic candidates through ActBlue.
Democrats contend that it won’t be easy for Republicans to catch up. While ActBlue makes small donations easier, they say record numbers are due to extremely high enthusiasm among Democratic grassroots, which Republicans can’t replicate. Republicans often point to the record fundraising for Trump and the RNC as a sign that there is energy on their side, too.
What’s not clear yet is whether that money will flow to candidates other than Trump. McDaniel noted Thursday that Republicans running for Congress were outspent multiple times over in 2018.
Asked if that gap could be narrowed in 2020, McDaniel said, “I’m not going to raise expect — WinRed reported 30 million for the first quarter, which was a really strong quarter. We’re not going to be where ActBlue is in year one when they’ve been here for over a decade.”
Simone Pathé contributed to this report.