What in the hell was Karl Rove thinking? This has been the question on the minds of many political observers since the Republican super-strategist opened up a nasty new front in the ongoing civil war between his party’s purists and its pragmatists.
The storm broke February 6, when Rove, via the front page of The New York Times, debuted his newest venture, the Conservative Victory Project: an aggressive battle plan for the midterms that involves his super PAC, American Crossroads, intervening in the GOP primaries to try to ensure that the strongest, most electable candidates—not necessarily the most ideologically pristine ones—prevail.
The plan itself seems sound. The widespread sense among Republicans is that the party blew an opportunity to retake the Senate last year as a result of several not-ready-for-primetime candidates—Todd “legitimate rape” Akin being the most notable—winning primaries. “We messed up five absolutely winnable races,” asserts former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer (pointing to Indiana, Delaware, Nevada, Missouri, and Colorado). Staunch social conservative Ralph Reed, who keeps one foot in the GOP’s purist camp and one foot in its pragmatic camp, is also quick to acknowledge the need for better quality control: “It does the pro-family cause no good to have flawed candidates with serious candidate performance issues that end up making our issues look, mistakenly in my view, like they are a vulnerability.”
Unsurprisingly, however, the purist wing takes exception to all the finger pointing in its direction. And following the unveiling of Rove’s project, it went ballistic. Tea Party types, as well as conservative radio hosts like Mark Levin and Steve Deace, lined up to take their swings at Rove for plotting to marginalize conservatives and, as a seriously miffed Deace told me, “rubbing our noses in it publicly.” In The New York fricking Times, no less! “There will be no fixing this,” asserted Deace. “The civil war has been brewing in this party” for a couple of years now, he said, and people are operating with “short fuses.” “What Karl is providing is a face to our frustration.”
As the Karl-versus-conservatives story line took hold, Rove launched a Fox News apology tour, hopping from show to show, explaining to Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and Chris Wallace how his plan had been misconstrued, how he had nothing against hard-core conservatives, and how Crossroads had, in fact, sunk millions into Tea Party candidates the last go-round. Soft and pale, sheared of his usual swagger, Rove was the very picture of a man under siege.
Many Republicans, meanwhile, clucked their tongues and marveled at why Rove had chosen to kick the hornet’s nest. As some strategists noted (mostly sotto voce), there are things in politics that you sometimes have to do but that you simply do not talk about. Mucking around in primaries is one of those things. Don’t announce it, just do it—and for God’s sake tread lightly, taking great care to work with local leaders and play nice with everyone. “It’s tricky because any time an outside group goes into a state, their actions can boomerang, and by virtue of their targeting the [anti-establishment] candidate, that candidate can prevail,” says Fleischer. “So it has to be done with delicacy. It has to be done smart. It has to be done in conjunction with state officials, otherwise it is doomed to fail.” By so indelicately trumpeting his plans, Rove seemed to violate this basic precept. With just a bit more tact, political watchers note, he could have avoided this whole nasty fight.
But what if, for Rove, the fight was key to the strategy?
Arguably no Republican had a deeper post-election hole to climb out of than Rove. His personal brand was badly damaged by his triumphal forecasts last cycle, including an embarrassing election night that found him on Fox News disputing the network’s decision to call the race for President Obama. More materially, American Crossroads and its sister organization, Crossroads GPS, failed to deliver. Big time. (Not only did Mitt Romney lose, so did six of the eight Senate horses they backed.) When the blame game began, Rove emerged as a chief whipping boy in media accounts and among apoplectic donors (prompting him to host a post-game damage-control conference call with his top money men and women). Even Donald Trump took a turn, tweeting, “Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million [this] cycle.”
The recriminations game can be particularly brutal among donors, says a former Romney adviser. “Oftentimes donors elevate the guru consultant class to a higher level than they should,” he observes. “They give too much credit for being the ultimate reason for why candidates win and too much blame for being the reason they lose.”
Post-election, big Republican donors have been demanding answers as a condition of future support for various groups—and players in the money game report that there has been barking, profanity, and not-so-veiled threats. “I do think you had a lot of donors saying, ‘You have to demonstrate you learned the lessons of the last campaign,’” says the Romney adviser. “Then they want to see measurable results toward that end. ‘What are you doing to make sure you’re not spending money the same old way?’ ”
Rove’s donors were no exception to this trend, meaning he needed to do something to unruffle their feathers. Fast. “This is all about the donors,” says another veteran strategist. And what better way to make a statement to donors than to formulate a brand-new strategy and splash it across the front page of the paper of record? Message: lessons learned. Course correction set. “This is a follow-the-shiny-ball strategy,” the strategist argues. “It’s smart to get donors focused on the future, focused on a new mission right away as opposed to waiting.”
As for the backlash among purists, some political watchers assume this too is all part of the larger plan. How better to reassure anxious donors that their distaste for Akin-like candidates is shared than to poke a stick in the eye of the party’s anti-establishment forces—and, for good measure, to do so in the newspaper that symbolizes all that hard-core conservatives despise? Rove isn’t an idiot, Republicans point out. He may have simply calculated that it was worth the short-term beating in order to show his donors some love, and thus live to fight another day.
Most establishment Republicans seem confident that this skirmish will peter out soon enough. “While the rhetoric may be heated right now, it will calm down,” insists Georgette Mosbacher, a finance co-chair of the Republican National Committee. The anti-establishment folks, of course, vehemently disagree. “The genie is out of the bottle,” says Deace. “This thing will run its course. One side will win, and one side will lose.”
Though himself hardly a font of anti-establishment sentiment, Ari Fleischer happens to agree. “The first shot hasn’t even been fired yet,” he says, asserting that the piece in the Times was just “the announcement of the first shot.” Far from blowing over, he predicts, this fight “will accelerate the first time that ads are shown against a Tea Party candidate on behalf of another candidate.”
Deace and his team have, in fact, vowed to make Rove pay for his insults. “Anybody that he supports is toast,” says Deace. “Anybody Rove is attached to will get a scarlet letter. At this point a candidate would be better off getting Barack Obama’s endorsement than Karl Rove’s.”
Already the Iowa Senate race is shaping up to be an early test of this grudge match. In the Times piece announcing the Conservative Victory Project, Rove’s colleague Steve Law, president of American Crossroads, took specific aim at Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), fretting that the mouthy conservative has a “Todd Akin problem” and warning that his history of intemperate statements would be “hung around his neck.” King responded by taking up the purists’ banner and framing his possible Senate run as a matter of principle: “If I would back up in front of Karl Rove’s initiative, that would just empower him, and he would go on state after state, candidate after candidate.”
Rove, meanwhile, is racing full speed ahead on all fronts. On February 15, he trekked up to Capitol Hill to deliver a lesson on messaging to House Republican leaders. American Crossroads came out swinging early—and hard—in the Kentucky Senate race, bashing actress Ashley Judd for even thinking about challenging Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. (Beyond the leader’s obvious VIP status, there is a personal element to this: Crossroads’ Law once served as McConnell’s chief of staff.) And Rove just keeps on talking about the Conservative Victory Project, as media outlets devote vastly more ink and airtime to the subject than it could have garnered without the attendant controversy.
Of course, Rove isn’t the only one poised to benefit from this spectacle. Even as he pokes purists in an apparent effort to jumpstart his 2014 money machine, the purists are looking to fill their coffers by poking back. “They need their shiny ball strategy too,” observes the veteran strategist. “Everybody is trying to raise money.” And just like Rove, these groups play rough—at times a little too rough. Last week the Tea Party Patriots had to issue an apology for a help-us-fight-Karl-Rove fundraising plea that included a Photoshopped image of their target dressed as an SS officer. (An outside vendor took responsibility for the pic.)
You know it’s been a rough run when members of your own party start comparing you with Nazis. But don’t feel too sorry for Karl—or for those at war with him. As long as the dollars keep flowing in, both sides can walk away from this skirmish feeling like winners.