WASHINGTON -- By the end of February, the Republican Party will apparently become the first political entity to have its own Web address ending.
The new digital campaigning strategy means that individuals will have the ability to register for websites with a .gop suffix instead of .com, .net, .org or other usual domain names.
"You'll see committees, organizations, grass-roots and state committees using this ending," said Will Martinez, vice president of sales and marketing for .gop. "Hopefully in the lead-up to 2016 elections you'll see the presidential primary playing out on .gop."
With political donations moving online, the Republican State Leadership Committee – a party unit that focuses on state elections and set up the .gop group -- hopes that the new domain will help increase the party's online brand for upcoming election cycles. In 2012, President Obama's re-election campaign raised $504 million in online donations and invested twice as much as the Romney campaign in online advertising, the group says.
"The goal here is to really make investments and be on top of all of the newest in technology to compete with the Democrats and move up ahead of them," Republican National Committee Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski said.
Examples of expected Republican websites include convention.gop, poll.gop, news.gop and register.gop.
The new domains are possible because of a recent Internet expansion in response to online overcrowding and increased competition for Web addresses. By next year, the Internet will have 1,000 more Web endings such as .gay, .nyc and .buzz.
At a Wednesday "Beyond the Dot" conference on generic top-level domains, President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign manager Jim Messina said he was "pissed" that the Democrats have not created their own Web ending.
"It's just another thing in the toolbox to use to reach out to folks," Messina said. "As a campaign manager, all you want is more tools, and I think this is a really interesting one."
But the Democratic Party does not appear to be planning for a .dem domain in the future.
"It's not a strategy, it's not a solution to a problem," DNC press secretary Michael Czin said. "Republicans didn't lose in 2008 or 2012 because people couldn't find their websites. To the contrary it's because people could figure out what they were campaigning on."
Other Democrats question whether this move will add more partisanship to the Web, especially as a recent Gallop Poll found 43% of voters identify as Independent, the highest percentage in 25 years.
"In today's political environment I don't think it makes a lot of sense," said Michael Sargaent, the executive director of Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "The purpose of communication from candidates should be to build your own brand and tell them why you are the best candidate to support them," instead of embracing the party label.
Republicans are also going to have little control over who gets a .gop address.
The group hopes to create an inclusive brand for all members of the Republican Party. Users will not have to be Republican leaders to register for a .gop address. After a 60-day period where the Web ending will only be open to trademarked brands, purchasing .gop will be open to the public.
"We want this to be something that can connect people at all levels of the party, whether you want to start a blog and you're a teenage Republican or you're a college group and want a .gop," Martinez said.
This could have risks for the party, says a longtime Democratic adviser on digital campaigns.
"Because the Republicans are at war among themselves between the far right, the business conservatives, the social conservatives and the moderate Republican rank, there is such a blurring going on in that context that it is unclear what the brand .gop will come to mean to people," said Alan Rosenblatt, now a partner at Turner Strategies, a communications strategy firm. "There's a lot of potential for it to be captured by the far right extremists which would really hurt Republican branding."
Martinez says that a long list of general Web addresses will soon be made available for $20.16, in anticipation of the 2016 elections. According to Mike McLaughlin, senior vice president of domains at GoDaddy.com, one of the largest domain purchasing websites, the majority of new Web extensions will cost between $10 and $40.
Revenue from .gop purchases will go toward repaying the RSLC's initial investment in getting the domain approved, and aiding party building efforts nationwide.
"Having another funding stream could never be a bad idea for anybody," said Beth Becker, a digital strategist and partner at Indigo Strategies. "It allows branding with the opportunity to raise money that they can reinvest in building the party even further, I feel like honestly it's a shame that the Democrats aren't doing the same."
The RSLC expects .gop to pass its final step in approval by next week, and the first sites could go live by the end of the month.