Intense criticism is mounting against Karl Rove over his launch of the “Conservative Victory Project,” a new American Crossroads initiative that seeks to vet GOP Senate candidates while squeezing out unelectable political prospects. Conservative critics of Rove see his new venture as an “incumbent protection program” and an assault on the Tea Party. But the accusations miss their mark. It is difficult to deny the disasters that cost conservatives precious political power in the last two elections – disasters that could have been easily prevented if there had been a system set up for the careful scrutiny of candidates. Surely, the conservative movement would better be served by a more effective filtering out of unelectable candidates through a project like Rove has designed.
“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” says Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the conservative organization responsible for the creation of the Project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”
Jonathan Collegio, communications director of American Crossroads, further illuminates the rationale behind the project:
“Somewhere between four to seven U.S. Senate seats were lost over the last two election cycles, not because of the messages that the Republican party had, but because of the messengers, the lack of candidate discipline, as well as a lack of ability to raise sufficient money to compete.”
Some of those messengers were indeed very much off the charts politically. Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s ludicrous comment about “legitimate rape” more than likely cost Republicans a Senate seat retained by the extremely vulnerable incumbent Claire McCaskill. McCaskill was widely predicted to lose before Akin’s blunder. Richard E. Mourdock, who ousted Indiana Republican incumbent Richard E. Lugar in the primary, was defeated by Rep. Joe Donnelly for a seat long-held by the GOP. His widely publicized statement that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen” was a decisive factor.
The 2010 election saw similar defeats of other dubious candidates, such as the highly grating loss by Sharron Angle to a very vulnerable Harry Reid in Nevada, and Ken Buck, who lost a close race to Michael Bennet in Colorado, very likely due to his position that abortion should be prohibited even in cases of rape or incest. In the cases of Bennet, Akin and Mourdock, these candidates do not even represent the popular Republican Party view of allowing abortion exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. All it takes is one question from one reporter on their extreme position, and the race is as good as lost. How many more times will conservatives permit this scene to play itself out?
Perhaps the most glaring example of the type of election forfeiture Rove and Crossroads seek to avoid with their new project comes to us from Christine O’Donnell, who ousted Rep. Michael Castle in the primary, only to be defeated by Christopher Coons in the 2010 election in Delaware. O’Donnell represented the epitome of an undesirable candidate. She had held no elective office or had any experience in government prior to running for the Senate, and a veritable collection of off-the-wall comments, as well as a series of business problems, ranging from unpaid debts and taxes, to IRS liens and misused campaign funds, made her an easily beatable candidate. Coons trounced O’Donnell in the election, winning by a margin of 17 points. By contrast, an exit poll taken following the vote showed Coons would have beaten Castle by a single point. Considering that poll was taken after Coons’ victory, it is quite possible Castle could have overcome such a slender margin during a sustained campaign. Instead, a man with a serious prior flirtation with Marxism was sent to the Senate.
In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Rove attempted to defuse criticism coming from conservative circles. The foremost accusation is that Rove is attempting to form an incumbent protection movement aimed at protecting establishment GOP candidates from “upstart” Tea Party candidates and their “over-the-top” conservatism. “This is not to protect incumbent Republicans,” explained Rove. He continued:
“It is to get in races where it is important to have a winning candidate. It is to try and find the most conservative candidate who can win the so-called Buckley rule. Our job is not to protect incumbents, it is to win races by stopping the practice of giving away some of the seats like we did in Missouri and Indiana this past year, and that may mean telling the incumbent Republican that if he is going be in the race, he shouldn’t expect any funds from Crossroads in the general election.”
The claim that Rove is “at war” with conservative grassroots is similarly hyperbolic and is disproved by the tens of millions of dollars that Crossroads has given to Tea Party candidates, even against the organization’s better judgment. “Crossroads is second to none in our support of Tea Party candidates,” Rove affirmed:
“In 2010 and ’12, we spent over $30 million for Senate candidates who were Tea Party candidates. We spent almost $20 million for House candidates who were Tea Party candidates … We spent $2.9 million for Marco Rubio, more than any other group. We spent $2.7 million for Ron Paul. We spent $5.1 million for Sharron Angle in Nevada. We spent $8 million in Colorado for Ken Buck. We spent $1.4 million in Pennsylvania for Pat Toomey, the former president of Club for Growth. We spent more money on his behalf than the group that he used to head. And then in 2012 we spent $5.9 million in Indiana for Murdock and $3.3 million in Missouri. We ran ads up until the point where Akin made his stupid comment.”
As Rove notes, the Tea Party has certainly brought the GOP some good candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, which Crossroads has supported. But it has also supported terrible candidates, which the entire conservative movement, including the so-called “establishment,” has no choice but to waste millions of dollars on in vain. Like the Republican Party itself, the Tea Party movement is not immune to attracting unseemly characters and supporting those who do damage to the conservative cause. The influential Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks, for instance, suffered an embarrassing leadership fallout over a book royalty dispute. Veteran Republican politico and former chairman Dick Armey resigned from the organization after he and other staffers alleged group president Matt Kibbe was exploiting FreedomWorks to enrich himself through a book produced with organizational resources. As one internal source told the Daily Caller, “There is a feeling by a lot of folks that FreedomWorks is shifting over to become a promotion vehicle for Matt Kibbe more than an organization that focuses on public policy and elections and being a service center to the grassroots.”
The Conservative Victory Project will maintain its own identity, operating as a super-PAC, independent of both American Crossroads and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. This autonomy, along with the intention of disclosing the names of donors, is considered critical. The inevitable showdowns between competing Republicans is likely to make some donors squeamish about supporting intra-party battles that could eventually benefit Democrats, much like the Republican presidential primaries gave the Obama campaign plenty of ammunition to use against eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
One candidate for the 2014 races reportedly being targeted by Rove’s group is Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who is considering a run for the Senate seat in Iowa currently held by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. Efforts will be made to see that he doesn’t get the nomination, due to his outspoken and incendiary comments that would likely alienate a majority of the electorate: King contended that terrorists would be “dancing in the streets” if President Obama won the 2008 election, unnecessarily denigrated illegal immigrants as “dogs,” and called former Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) “a great American hero.” Other Senate races where provocative would-be candidates are seen as potential general election liabilities include Louisiana, Alaska and Georgia.
A more rigorous vetting process for such loose-cannon candidates will likely improve electoral outcomes for the conservative movement. In 2010, for example, prompted by nationwide dissatisfaction with two years of complete Democratic control, the Senate, just like the House, was ripe for the taking by Republicans. In the end, Democrats maintained a 51-47 margin (with 2 independents). Thus, the three very winnable Senate seats lost by Angle, Buck and O’Donnell cost the GOP control of that chamber. After that, the Democratically-controlled Senate, led by Harry Reid, enabled Barack Obama to keep his profligate and irresponsible spending under wraps by refusing to pass a budget for more than three years. Had Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, they would have very likely forced the president to veto responsible budgets which, in turn, might have led to a different result in the 2012 presidential election. Moreover, as mad as conservative groups may be, Jonathan Collegio reminds them that losing control of the Senate “made it impossible to stop Obama’s fiscal cliff tax hikes last month.”
In 2014, Senate races will see Democrats defending 21 seats, compared to only 14 for Republicans, giving them a similar advantage to the 23-10 one they held in the 2012 election. Democrats gained two seats, courtesy of Mourdock and Aken, but 2014 is fraught with far more peril for their party. Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot, meaning voters can only express dissatisfaction with his policies by taking it out on other Democrats. Off-year elections also tend to attract voters who are paying closer attention than the so-called “low information voters.” Thus, the excesses of dubious candidates with hard-line positions that thrill primary voters, while they alienate the general electorate, are likely to be magnified.
Conservatives of all strips were burned by the outcome of the 2012 election and are understandably searching for the cause of their electoral misfortune. But they must look honestly at the factors that produced crucial losses for the cause and ultimately allowed the radical agenda of the Obama administration to continue damaging the country. The Conservative Victory Project is a legitimate attempt to prevent unforced errors in the candidate vetting process and needlessly giving up political power to the opposition. The conservative movement is not advanced by fomenting its own division and fighting with each other instead of fighting the enemy.
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