Twenty-one-year-old Karl Rove was a portrait of earnestness and ambition when Dan Rather interviewed him about Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign for CBS News on Jan. 18, 1972. Sporting owlish glasses and long sideburns, the president’s youth vote director held up a bumper sticker rebranding the GOP as the Generation Of Peace and explained how college students were the key to the election. “You can’t get some 35-year-old to teach the Republican Party how to get young people,” said Rove, supremely confident even then.
Over the next 40 years, Rove became the party’s most influential, admired, and feared strategist. For the first time in his career, that status is threatened. Tea Party activists are challenging the traditional party structure and have turned on Rove. Leaders who just months ago praised his 2012 fundraising machine as the model for modern campaigns fault the strategist for failing to deliver Mitt Romney to the White House and a Republican majority to the U.S. Senate. A study by the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks campaign expenditures, found that Rove’s two groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, spent more than $175 million in the 2012 general election. None of the candidates they supported won. Rove’s record in November was “just beyond abysmal,” says Brent Bozell, a prominent conservative activist.
Yet it’s not so much what Rove did in 2012 that has Bozell and other conservatives so angry—it’s what he’s planning to do in 2014. Rove blames last year’s big losses in part on Tea Party outsiders who undermined the establishment, working to nominate far-right candidates who turned out to be embarrassments. Both Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana lost to Democrats after making stupid comments about rape. To keep that kind of thing from happening again, Rove has started a new campaign organization, called the Conservative Victory Project, which will back Republican candidates Rove has vetted and believes can win.
Party activists accuse Rove of disregarding voters and installing himself as kingmaker. “I think Rove is trying to defend himself and deflect from his failure,” says David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group best known as the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that sanctioned the kind of unlimited campaign spending Rove specializes in. “I hear from donors. I hear from grass-roots people across the country who are offended by the very fact that Karl Rove thinks he knows best.”
Rove declined an interview request. Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Conservative Victory Project and American Crossroads, says, “We have made absolutely clear we are not trying to pick a fight with the Tea Party. We are simply trying to pick the best candidates available.”
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, one of the movement’s largest groups with about 1,000 chapters nationwide, says Rove’s new organization is “the antithesis of what our movement stands for. We want local control. We want to choose our own nominees. We don’t want consultants from Washington, D.C., coming in and telling us who they deem the most winnable candidates.”
Rove seems intent on pursuing his strategy, even if it means going after elected Republicans. In February, the Conservative Victory Project indicated it would oppose U.S. Representative Steve King of Iowa should the Republican, who is a favorite of Tea Party activists, run for the Senate seat Democratic incumbent Tom Harkin is giving up in 2014. That prompted a rebuke from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, also a Republican, who said Rove should leave the primary to Iowans. The governor “believes Karl Rove received his message, which is that meddling in the Iowa primary would be counterproductive to his efforts and that Iowa Republicans will be making this decision,” says Tim Albrecht, Branstad’s spokesman. Collegio says he has no information on any talks between Rove and Branstad.
The losing party always goes through a season of recrimination after a disappointing election, and some of the attacks on Rove are more political calculation than genuine outrage. “I am unalterably opposed to a bunch of billionaires financing a boss to pick candidates in 50 states,” Newt Gingrich wrote in a Feb. 20 article in Human Events. “No one person is smart enough nor do they have the moral right to buy nominations across the country.” Gingrich’s own 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination was aided by $21.5 million in donations to a pro-Gingrich super PAC from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his family.
The tension between Rove and his fellow Republicans is a proxy for the larger conflict between traditional party organizations and independent groups supported by big donors. “This dust-up is the latest skirmish in the never-ending war between GOP pragmatists and purists,” says John Pitney Jr., a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. Rove’s critics, he says, see his Conservative Victory Project “as an effort to purge strong conservatives from the party.”
All this squabbling over who gets to pick candidates overshadows a more important debate Republicans need to have, says John Weaver, chief strategist for the 2012 presidential campaign of Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah. “At the end of the day primary fights should be over policy differences,” Weaver says. “To single out candidates and single out grass roots and spend more from sources not disclosed is not a healthy thing.”
Before they can have that debate, though, Republicans have some repair work to do. “The traditional levers of the party apparatus are not there anymore,” says Terry Holt, a Republican consultant and adviser to House Speaker John Boehner. “The advent of super PACS has been at the expense of the two-party system.”
Rove doesn’t appear interested in giving up on the establishment that for decades defined Republican politics—and his own career. Rove, says Holt, is “responding to his experience and to the very real need for the party to be more competitive again.”