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Republicans Work for Change With E-Commerce Site

Web: RepublicanShopping.com takes political fund-raising into new territory by offering goods online and getting a cut of profit.

August 28, 2000|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget "Prosperity With a Purpose." On the Internet, the Republican Party's motto is becoming "Purchasing With a Purpose."

At RepublicanShopping.com, the purchase of a $225 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne nets $18 for the California Republican Party. Spend $899.99 on a set of Callaway Golf irons, and the state GOP receives $89.99. Splurge on a $2,415 diamond tennis bracelet, and a check for $289.80 is sent to state party coffers.

Several political Web sites, supporting both Republicans and Democrats, have long included links to online stores where partisans can buy campaign T-shirts, bumper stickers and even T-bone steaks. But RepublicanShopping.com breaks new ground in politics by harnessing those purchases for fund-raising purposes. And it may become a model of Internet marketing for other nonprofit organizations looking for new ways to tap supporters.

RepublicanShopping.com is the high-tech equivalent of selling Girl Scout cookies. Like the Scouts, the GOP is hawking merchandise made by others and pocketing a portion of the profit, which it will use to support its political candidates.

"There's a high brand loyalty when it comes to voting Republican," said Stuart DeVeaux, the California Republican Party's communications director, who came up with the idea for RepublicanShopping.com with state party Chairman John McGraw. "We believe we can extend that to high brand purchasing loyalty."

The attraction for rank-and-file Republicans plays on the same feelings of community identity that drive the popularity of "affinity" credit cards, which send a percentage of a cardholder's purchases to an earmarked charity. If you're going to shop, you might as well help your favorite cause in the process.

So far, the nearly 3-week-old Web site is set up to collect money only for Republican candidates running for statewide office in California. But the state GOP plans to extend the fund-raising mechanism to include options for supporting Republican candidates in at least 15 other states before election day and, ultimately, the national party.

Though the e-commerce initiative offers a tantalizing combination of money, politics and technology, some observers are skeptical that it will generate a significant amount of funding for Republicans. After all, the Republican National Committee already has raised more than $308 million for the current election cycle, with presidential candidate George W. Bush raising a record $90 million for his campaign alone.

"I don't know that it will be a roaring success," said Kenneth Gross, an election law expert in Washington, of the site.

But such online fund-raising could become a helpful source of money for state parties, individual candidates and voter initiatives, according to Republicans. It also has the potential to broaden the traditional base of GOP donors to include more party faithful and could reduce the need for more expensive fund-raising activities such as direct mailings, phone solicitations and elaborate events for big donors, DeVeaux said.

"This is going to help us create a self-sustaining party," DeVeaux said. "It's 100% within the Republican ideology of creating self-sufficiency and long-term fiscal planning."

It turns out that the Republicans' idea has much in common with a San Francisco firm called Ebates.com. For 15 months, Ebates.com has been running a Web site that lets shoppers buy goods from more than 400 online merchants, such as Barnesandnoble.com and Pets.com, and collect rebates from their purchases.

Ebates.com takes advantage of a widespread Web marketing technique in which online merchants offer commissions to Web sites that send shoppers their way. Under such "affiliate marketing" arrangements, if a hypothetical Web site called FancyCooking.com sends Julia Child to an online kitchen goods store called GourmetSupplies.com and Child spends $100 on the site, GourmetSupplies.com would pay FancyCooking.com about $5 or $10 for the referral.

Ebates.com has set up hundreds of affiliated marketing agreements, but instead of keeping the 2%-to-40% commissions for itself, it passes the rebates (which typically fall in the 10%-to-12% range) along to shoppers who visit http://www.ebates.com. That helps Ebates.com generate traffic for its site, which in turn can lead to lucrative advertising and marketing deals, said co-founder Alessandro Isolani.

GOP honcho McGraw was introduced to Ebates.com by Deepak Kamra, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and friend who sits on Ebates.com's board. They immediately realized they could create a Republican version of Ebates.com and route the commissions to the California GOP instead of to shoppers.

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