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The NRCC's sly foray into the hipster-Americana trade

POSTED one year ago BY Go BIG Media, Inc.

By Theodoric Meyer

The items for sale at Delaware Crossing , a new Americana-themed online store, include a scarf printed with the Declaration of Independence, cuff links and mugs emblazoned with "USA" and a flask "brought to you by the XXI Amendment."

The store is brand new, but its parent company has longtime roots in Washington. Scroll to the bottom of any page, and a disclaimer in tiny white type reads: "Paid for by the NRCC and not authorized by any candidates or candidate's committee," with a link to House Republicans' campaign website.

Delaware Crossing, launched last month with next to no fanfare by the National Republican Congressional Committee, breaks new ground in online political fundraising by selling merchandise not explicitly tied to the GOP, Democratic and Republican digital consultants say. The store could be a way in with people who haven't responded to more traditional fundraising asks. But while some operatives praised the store as an innovative experiment in digital outreach and data-gathering, others expressed discomfort with an operation they said could entice people to unwittingly make political donations.

"What the @nrcc is up to with https://delawarecrossing.co/ is the future of politics," Gerrit Lansing, the Republican National Committee's chief digital officer and a former NRCC digital director, tweeted earlier this month. "A de-branded merch store."

"Little indication it's a political site," Lansing continued in a series of tweets, noting that the lack of explicitly Republican imagery could help "a less well known brand (nrcc) define themselves nationally in a new way." "The de-branded aspect is critical," he added. (Lansing did not respond to an email requesting further comment.)

Online stores hawking polo shirts and mugs have become nearly ubiquitous among political groups, including nearly every 2016 presidential campaign.

But those stores are usually prominently Republican or Democratic. They typically sell items explicitly tied to the parties or candidates getting the proceeds - for example, "I ♥ Obamacare" magnets for Democratic customers and colorful striped George H.W. Bush socks for Republican shoppers. Only occasional items, like a RNC mug extolling the Constitution, are less specific to the seller.

"Those are usually one-off things," said one Republican digital consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk candidly. "Their main thing is selling Jeb-branded koozies."

Delaware Crossing is different, the consultant said, right down to the leather luggage tag with a stylized image of Teddy Roosevelt and the mantra, "KEEP EXPLORING." It gives the NRCC another revenue and email-gathering stream - a dialog box at the top of the website offers free shipping in return for an email address. Plus, it gives customers the chance to buy stuff they might actually want.

"Put yourself in a Republican donor's shoes," the consultant said. "Are you going to walk around in an NRCC T-shirt? I don't think so."

"It's a smart concept largely for two reasons," Dean Petrone, vice president at the GOP firm Go BIG Media, said in an email. "The first is the approach itself is disarming to those who might be turned off by something overtly political. The second being the reality that while Republican ideals will always be popular with those in our Party, the same can't be said of the GOP brand, and this is a smart means to attract those for which the latter is true."

But Ian Patrick Hines, another GOP consultant, criticized the site as deceptive.

Hines said he first saw the site when Lauren Devoll, an NRCC digital revenue strategist, tweeted about it last month, without mentioning that it was a NRCC product.

"At first I thought it was an innovative, neat, independent company," Hines said.

He said Delaware Crossing's lack of GOP branding reminded him of campaigns' practice of renting their email lists to each other without telling donors how their money will be divided.

"I think it's better to be honest with people than try to slide one past," Hines added.

Katie Martin, a NRCC spokeswoman, dismissed the criticism that the store lacks Republican branding, noting the Teddy Roosevelt swag and a money clip emblazoned with "DON'T TREAD ON ME," a popular tea party slogan.

Martin said the NRCC has gotten only positive feedback from customers of the new store.

"We have always strived to find new and creative ways to engage our online community," Martin wrote in an email. "The DCCC is just mad they aren't this creative. Did I mention the DCCC's online store doesn't even work anymore?"

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Meredith Kelly, who said she had never heard of Delaware Crossing before POLITICO asked her about it, said her committee is selling merchandise directly to its email list at the moment. The DCCC ran its own online store in the past, selling items with slogans like "Proud Democrat."

"With nearly 1.5 million grassroots donors so far this cycle, the DCCC relies on genuine and honest outreach about our Democratic mission to connect with our small donors," Kelly said in a statement. "It's amusing that the Republican brand is so bad that the NRCC itself is hiding from it."

Democratic digital operatives asked about the site questioned how effective it would be.

The lack of Republican branding "might be smart in terms of making the initial sale," Stu Trevelyan, the chief executive of the Democratic digital firm NGP VAN, wrote in an email to POLITICO. "But I doubt their store will be particularly helpful to the NRCC, in that online stores' primary objective is to identify prospects for future contributions. It's not clear that people buying a whiskey flask extolling the 21st amendment have demonstrated any attributes that would increase the likelihood of follow up contributions to the NRCC."

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