How Republicans turned the Senate R.E.D.D.

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Soon to be the Senate Majority Leader of the US Senate after winning the Kentucky Senate race and the GOP winning a majority of seats in the US Senate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves a press conference with national and local media at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, Wednesday, November 5, 2014.  (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — It took a field trip to a trendy New York hotel nearly a year ago — and then a lot of follow- up — to get Republicans up to speed and on the same page about using technology in their Senate campaigns.

Last January, several dozen Republicans gathered in New York City at the Standard High Line hotel in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District at the invitation of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The group included general consultants for most of the competitive Senate campaigns, mail vendors, pollsters, TV buyers, principals at the top Republican digital and data firms, and NRSC leadership and staff. They met in the High Line room on the third floor, whose glass walls provided a view of the city on one side and the Hudson River on the other.

“I think there were more blazers in The Standard those two days than any other period of the hotel’s existence,” said Matt Lira, the NRSC’s deputy executive director.

And, blazers and all, the attendees hashed out their differences.

“We encouraged people to be very blunt with each other, and they were, in a very good way,” Lira said. “I compare it to the family having the argument they’ve been dancing around for years. … They entered the conference with a lot of historic baggage over, 'You’re taking my budget,’ or ‘You’re trying to steal my thing,’ and they left it with a greater sense of how they could work together.”

“It wasn’t a panacea,” Lira added, sensitive to oversimplification. “But I think it was a pivotal event.”

The High Line summit was a table setter, a beginning. It did two things: it cleared away obstacles to greater cooperation among the GOP’s paid consultant class and between them and the NRSC, and it delivered a clear message to them that the NRSC was expecting the consultants to execute digital-savvy campaigns. But Lira, with the backing of NRSC executive director Rob Collins and political director Ward Baker, was going to do more than just ask. He was determined to hold the campaigns accountable.

(NSRC)

So Lira assembled a team to do just that. In March, he hired Mindy Finn, a well-respected digital strategist who had worked on multiple presidential campaigns and also as an executive at Twitter’s D.C. offices. Finn’s sole responsibility was to create what she named the R.E.D.D. program, short for Republicans Excelling at Digital and Data.

And as would become customary for the NRSC this cycle, the group was quiet about what it was doing. A lone tweet from Lira was the only mention of Finn’s hiring. “One of the things I took from 2012 in particular was that the Obama campaign never really talked about what they were doing until it was over,” said the soft-spoken Lira. “We adopted the same approach.”

“I recognize others had different approaches because they had donors to satisfy or whatever, but in our case, we were very focused on achieving our objective, and then, hopefully, the results were the justification,” Lira said. “We probably took it too far. Other people were celebrating first downs and we weren’t even celebrating touchdowns.”

R.E.D.D. began with a 52-bullet checklist of actions that the NRSC expected campaigns to take, broken into seven categories: campaign structure, website, email, fundraising, social/video, advertising and data/analytics.  

Finn then prepared report cards for the campaigns, tracking their performance in each of the seven categories. She hired a deputy, Kelsey Jarrett, who had been in the Google Fellows program. In 2012, the digital team at the NRSC had only included two people. In 2014, Finn and Jarrett were part of a roughly 20-person team based at NRSC headquarters.

But Finn was the linchpin in standardizing digital and tech standards across campaigns, a particular challenge in midterm elections.

In a presidential election, major party nominees and their campaigns tend to set the tone and to create the culture that determines how an array of campaigns work, which vendors and technologies they use, and their best practices. Certainly, that was the case in 2008 and 2012 with the Obama campaigns, which had enormous influence on the entire Democratic Party apparatus. In a non-presidential year election, however, there is much less that binds campaigns of the same party together. They use different vendors and consultants, different tactics and different technologies.

In the absence of the unifying force of a presidential campaign, Lira and Finn played the role of heavy.

“Every campaign, compared to the past, was open to the idea of digital. It’s when you start to define it that they become resistant,” Lira said. “There were campaigns that were more open to the idea of online fundraising per se than they were about online organizing. There were other campaigns that were incredibly receptive to online organizing, but for whatever reason — maybe it’s a local vendor they had or something — they were resistant to online fundraising.”

Finn said that her goal has been for years to “modernize the Republican Party and bring it into the 21st century.” But she and Lira and the rest of the NRSC’s leadership recognized that the biggest challenge to doing this wasn’t acquiring new gadgets or what Lira derisively refers to “shiny objects.”

Just as the NRSC honed in on recruiting the best candidates, the team working on the digital effort realized it had to be about people more than anything else.

“As much as it was about finding new tools, it was about changing culture,” Lira said. He added, speaking of the GOP: “And we’re not complete with that process.”

“It’s really easy to get the technology in a capitalist society. It’s getting people to use it” that presents the challenge, he said.

So when consultants resisted Finn’s demands that they adhere to the R.E.D.D. system, Collins and Baker, the top two principals at the NRSC, backed them up.

“I viewed myself as a consultant, but one that was unencumbered by needing to make my client happy or sell more of my service to them,” Finn said.

The R.E.D.D. program emphasized the need for campaigns to do a better job of recruiting and empowering volunteers. Finn advised campaigns to follow the “Jack Bauer rule,” named after the main character from the TV series “24,” because after any volunteers signed up to help out on a campaign — through a website, an email, or phone — they were each supposed to receive a response within 24 hours.

Lira also hired an analytics director, Luke Thompson, from Yale’s political science department, a hotbed of creative research into how campaigns can motivate behavior and use social pressure to prompt voters and volunteers into action.

Thompson advised campaigns to take a different approach to their email solicitations, by, he said, “not asking people for transactional relationships, but instead encouraging people to view participation as something central to their sense of themselves.”

“We don’t ask people for a vote. We encourage them to be voters,” Thompson said. “We don’t ask them to just give us money. We ask them to be supporters.”

In the closing days of the campaign, Finn cracked down on any lapses in applying the “Jack Bauer rule.” “My team at the committee signed up for every single campaign and made sure they were getting some kind of contact within 24 hours, and if they were not, we discussed that with [the offending campaign],” she said.

This was another regular practice the NRSC instituted this cycle: It secretly tested the Republican campaigns and the vendors serving them. It sent people to sign up as volunteers for each campaign and had them report back on the quality of the operations from the inside, including the state of each campaign’s ground game and whether door-to-door apps were working or not working. The group brought in “multiple pollsters in every state,” according to Lira, to make sure that pollsters hired by the campaigns were delivering reliable information. The NRSC even hired Nathan Klein, deputy polling manager for the 2012 Mitt Romney presidential campaign, as its in-house pollster, to add another layer of accountability and data.

“Nothing personal against any firm, but after 2012, we wanted more information, not less,” Lira said.

Lira’s team also “secret-shopped” Democratic campaign websites, signing up to volunteer for opposition campaigns to see what kind of responses they would get. Most asked for money, but not a lot followed up with phone calls, he said.

In addition to setting clear expectations in New York, and requiring the campaigns to meet certain digital standards through the R.E.D.D. program, Lira’s team recruited digital directors for many of the Senate campaigns, and sent reinforcements to campaigns that needed extra help or encouragement.

“So often in the past it was, ‘Who can run Facebook?' and somebody raises their hand, and that person becomes digital director — rather than having people with experience, with the background,” Lira said.

They recruited Eric Wilson from the Republican digital firm Engage to be Ed Gillespie’s digital director in Virginia. Lira found Michael Marinaccio on the House Transportation Committee — he saw a video Marinaccio had put together explaining a water bill and started looking for its creator — and sent him to North Carolina as the de facto digital director for Thom Tillis’s Senate campaign.

Steve Johnston, who had been working for a startup in Silicon Valley over the summer, found himself between jobs by fall, when his company couldn’t get off the ground. Lira found out and sent him to Alaska for the last month of the campaign, where he overhauled the online donations page for Republican Dan Sullivan, and put the campaign’s social media engagement with supporters on steroids.

And when the Tillis campaign in North Carolina told Lira it couldn’t spare a staffer to make sure every new person signing up online to volunteer was greeted with a phone call within 24 hours, Lira sent the campaign a staffer from Washington, D.C.

Lira also stocked the NRSC with talented staff. Getting Thompson was a recruiting coup: The 30-year-old political scientist knew firsthand the culture of data and analytics at Yale that served as a feeder system for the Analyst Institute and other institutions on the left that the right has not yet begun to match.

Tim Cameron was hired as the NRSC’s digital director. The former South Carolina GOP staffer had helped Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions build an email list of a few million voters and had worked at Craft Media, and Lira lured him to the NRSC from a comfortable digital media job at the House Republican Conference.

When Cameron arrived, Dan Huey, who had been the deputy political director at the Republican Governors Association for the 2012 cycle and was running the digital effort at the NRSC, moved over to become deputy director of the committee’s independent expenditure arm.

Lira also brought in Dain Valverde, having been impressed with his creative video and film work on the Romney campaign. Valverde spearheaded an effort to, as Finn put it in the R.E.D.D. checklist, “flood the zone with positive videos.” He oversaw the creation of six- and seven-minute “long form” biographical videos that were essential to introducing candidates to donors, activists and the rest of the political operative world, as well as a few voters. These films could be played at state and county party conventions and dinners, and also provided the raw material for 15- and 30-second campaign ads.

Valverde also had a proper studio built at the committee headquarters, with professional lighting and staging, for lawmakers or surrogates to do live TV hits or record videos. Previously, it had been “essentially a closet in the corner,” Lira said.

In online fundraising, Republican committees are still way behind their opponents. But the NRSC has made significant strides in the past two years. One of Lira’s obsessions was to expand its email list. Working with Zac Moffatt and Michael Beach of the leading digital firm on the right, Targeted Victory, Lira helped grow the NRSC’s list from around 50,000 two years ago to just over 1 million names, and raised $18 million off that list, which he said is a record for a GOP party committee.

The Republican National Committee has not announced how much it raised online in 2013 and 2014, but one source close to the RNC, with knowledge of its online work, estimated the total at between $10 million and $12 million. The National Republican Congressional Committee has similarly not announced its online fundraising haul, but a source with knowledge of the NRCC’s total said it was between $5 million and $6 million. NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek disputed this number, but said the committee would not be releasing its total.

Democrats still blew the NRSC out of the water. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which has the biggest email list of any committee in either party and was memorably mocked for the hysterical tone of its fundraising e-mails — raised $67 million. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not yet announced its total, but a committee source estimated that it had outraised the NRSC by $40 million. 

Democrats are miles ahead in online fundraising because they have been building their email lists longer, and have superior online donation management tools through sites like ActBlue, which saves credit card information and makes it easy to donate in varying amounts.

But Lira argued that he has closed the gap significantly. In 2012, the NRSC raised a paltry $5 million online, compared to the DSCC’s $35 million.

“[DCCC Digital Director] Brandon English has made serious investments in list-building every year since ‘06, good years and bad. Republicans haven't,” Lira said.

“The story as I see it, is that a GOP committee has finally shown that we can raise serious sums; that GOP audiences will give online and that email list growth is possible,” he said. “However, it will take sustained investment and effort over multiple cycles, just as the Democratic committees have done since 2006. And if Republicans don't, the email list disparity between Republican and Democratic committees will represent a structural threat to the congressional majority.”

Like online fundraising, much of what the NRSC has achieved was simply catching up with Democrats. And running modern campaigns made a difference only in the races that were already close: Colorado, North Carolina, Alaska and Virginia. But if there was a theme to the NRSC’s work this cycle, it was summed up well recently by Kevin McLaughlin, a senior adviser at the committee.

“Everybody in 2012 came out and said, ‘Data and digital, data and digital, blah blah blah. And I was like, we have a people problem,” McLaughlin said at a briefing with a dozen or so reporters. “Our candidates suck. Our staffs suck. We are way behind. And if we get lost in a frame of data and digital and don’t look at the people element of our campaign, and our staffs, then we are going to be in the same situation in two years.”

It’s easy for the winning side to claim it’s full of geniuses and did everything right. But in the past two years, the NRSC focused on at least doing the little things right, and in the process, did a lot to start building the thing Republicans need most: a modern campaign culture.