American political consultant Karl Rove is seen at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, during final preparations for the opening of the Republican National Convention on August 27, 2012. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)
Martha T. Moore and Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY
- New Rove-backed group aims to back GOP candidates with better chances of winning
- Some Tea Party activists fear a purge of the most conservative candidates
- Republicans are looking to broaden their appeal in the wake of disappointing 2012 results
Karl Rove has spent a week explaining himself - to Republicans.
Since he announced plans Feb. 4 to spend money in Republican congressional primaries to promote "electable" candidates, Rove has been trying to put out a grass-roots blaze that has conservative activists crying "civil war" with establishment Republicans.
The Conservative Victory Project - a new offshoot of the political non-profits co-founded by Rove called Crossroads - says it wants to avoid a repeat of 2012 embarrassments, when GOP candidates lost Senate elections in Indiana and Missouri after they made voter-alienating comments about rape.
Tea Party groups, talk-radio hosts and conservative activists, seeing the new group as an attempt to thwart the will of conservative primary voters, reacted furiously in the media, on conservative websites and, of course, on Twitter, where the backlash has its own hashtag: #CrushRove.
"Who died and made Karl Rove queen for a day?" barked radio talker Mark Levin.
Electability is "a false standard'' that favors popular candidates over principled ones, says Chris Chocola, head of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax campaign group. "The principle matters and we think voters kind of notice that.'' Rove "is focused on the (Republican) brand. We are not party builders. We are trying to improve the gene pool of Congress based on principle.''
Rove and Crossroads President Steven Law have made the media rounds from Fox's Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly to MSNBC's Chuck Todd, asserting that they are not trying to stifle primaries, promote moderates or protect incumbents but pick strong general-election candidates. They have pointed out, for instance, how much money Crossroads groups spent on behalf of Tea Party candidates: $30 million in the last two election cycles to help Republicans such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania - along with a batch of unsuccessful candidates including Indiana's Richard Mourdock.
Rove declined to be interviewed, but Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio says the new group plans close vetting of primary candidates, including their "discipline" in public statements, and their past. "Does the candidate have skeletons in his or her closet that are going to disqualify them in a general election - i.e. has the candidate ever dabbled in witchcraft?'' he says, referring to failed 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. The group will also look for successful fundraising in a candidate's home community. "If they can't raise money locally, it's endemic of something being wrong in their campaigns," Collegio says.
How this could play in 2014
The fight over Rove's intervention in primaries takes on urgency because Senate contests for 2014 are getting underway in three states where Republicans think they have a shot at winning open seats:
- In Georgia, the only declared Republican candidate is Rep. Paul Broun, whose record of controversial comments raises the specter of Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman whose comment that "legitimate rape" cannot result in pregnancy was condemned by other Republicans.
- In Iowa, strongly conservative Rep. Steve King hasn't said whether he'll run for the Senate. If he does, "all of the things he's said are going to be hung around his neck," Law, the head of the Conservative Victory Project, told TheNew York Times. A likely example: King has compared immigrants to dogs in suggesting the U.S. wants only the "pick of the litter." However, Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker says the new group's efforts will be wasted. "I expect that it will backfire," he said. "What will ultimately happen is that the grass roots will select who they were going to select anyway and donors will just be out a lot of money.''
- In West Virginia, Republican Shelley Moore Capito is running for the open seat left by retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller. She's already been ripped by the Club for Growth as a big spender. State GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas says local Republicans are happy to have her as their nominee, but he worries that the Conservative Victory Project's strategy could cost the party its ground troops. "The fear that I have is alienating our grass-roots folks. Those are the people who are absolutely key to us making a difference in '14 and winning the presidency in 2016.''
- The disagreement over electability vs. ideology is a "family feud,'' not a civil war, says Republican consultant Ron Bonjean. "There's a natural argument to be had here about whether you want the purest conservatives or do you want the conservatives that can win.''
What's the best way to grow the party
The fracas occurs as Republicans try to figure out how to recover from losses in 2012 and how to widen their appeal, especially to the growing number of Hispanic voters.
GOP strategist Henry Barbour, who is part of a newly formed Republican National Committee task force to examine the party's future, says, "There's people in Washington who want to not have competitive primaries, but look, it's how you grow the party.'' Like many politicos, Barbour also believes that competition makes for better candidates. "We've got to recruit really strong candidates. And I think competitive primaries will yield, in most cases, the best candidate for the general.''
Republican consultant Stuart Roy, who backed conservative former senator Rick Santorum in last year's GOP presidential primaries, says he would prefer that a mainstream Republican like Capito win a primary "and be in a very good position to win (the general election) than I would find someone who is ideologically pure who does not have an opportunity to win.'' The problem with trying to settle a nomination before a competitive primary is that no one is always right, he says.
"The D.C. establishment doesn't have the answers in picking the winners, nor do necessarily the Tea Party organizations. The danger is, you get carried away with how great you pick winners. And none of us can.''