Karl Rove has spent a week explaining himself -- to Republicans.
Since he announced plans Feb. 4 to spend money in GOP congressional primaries to promote "electable" candidates, Rove has been trying to put out a grass-roots blaze that has activists crying "civil war" with establishment Republicans.
The Conservative Victory Project -- an offshoot of the Crossroads political groups co-founded by Rove -- 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, who see the new group as an attempt to thwart the will of conservative primary voters, reacted furiously in the media, on conservative websites and 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 popularity over principle, says Chris Chocola of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group. 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 News Channel's Sean Hannity to MSNBC's Chuck Todd, asserting that they are not trying to stifle primaries, promote moderates or protect incumbents. They have pointed out that Crossroads groups spent $30 million in the past two elections to help Tea Party favorites such as Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Pat Toomey, as well as unsuccessful candidates including Indiana's Richard Mourdock.
Rove, whom President George W. Bush referred to as "the architect" of his presidential campaigns, declined to be interviewed, but Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio says the new group plans close vetting of primary candidates. "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 Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware. The group will also look for successful fundraising in a candidate's home base.
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 Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, whose comment that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy was condemned by his own party.
In Iowa, Rep. Steve King, considered a possible Senate candidate, was accused of comparing immigrants to dogs in suggesting the U.S. wants only the "pick of the litter." If Rove's group opposes King, their effort will be wasted, says Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker. "What will ultimately happen is that the grass roots will select who they were going to select anyway and (Rove's) donors will just be out a lot of money."
In West Virginia, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito has been tagged as a big spender by the Club for Growth. 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."
The fracas occurs as Republicans try to figure out how to broaden their appeal, especially to the growing number of Hispanic voters.
GOP consultant Stuart Roy says he'd rather nominate a mainstream Republican and win than "find someone who is ideologically pure who does not have an opportunity to win."
But the problem with trying to settle a nomination before a 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."
(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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