(This is the magazine version of a story that ran earlier online.)
As politicians, delegates, and thousands of reporters at the Republican and Democratic conventions obsessed over who will be elected president, a parallel convention of sorts was taking place in hotel dining rooms and private clubs around Tampa and Charlotte. There, party kingmakers met in secret with the wealthy backers who are increasingly driving this election to discuss an equally urgent question: Which party will control the U.S. Senate?
With no real chance of regaining control of the House this year, the Democrats are determined to keep hold of the other half of the Capitol. Their pitch to donors: If the Senate goes to the Republicans, Congress will unite against President Obama in a potential second term. The scarier scenario for Democrats (and one that’s especially effective at prying open wallets) is that if Mitt Romney wins the White House, a Republican House and Senate could join with him to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and unravel government regulations. Republican fundraisers employ the same sales technique, only in reverse: Even if Romney wins, a Democratic majority in the Senate would stand in the way of his most ambitious plans. Total control of government is all that matters.
No one makes this case more persuasively than Karl Rove. At a private breakfast briefing in Tampa, Rove—the most powerful unelected Republican—told about 70 of the biggest donors to his American Crossroads super PAC, “We’ve got to get this done to get Mitt Romney and the Senate, to repeal Obamacare on Day One!”
This rare look at the mechanics of fundraising and electoral strategy was not intended for reporters. I was invited as the guest of a financier who is a significant Republican donor. The financier knew I was a journalist. At no point was I presented with, nor did I agree to, restrictions regarding the information I heard. Upon my arrival at the breakfast, I was not asked if I was a journalist. I gave my name, identified the person who had invited me, was handed a wristband and ushered into the dining room. American Crossroads disputes this version of events, but a spokesman declined to comment further.
At the meeting, Rove made it clear how important winning the Senate is to him. The presentation began with a talk by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the rising GOP star who introduced Romney at the convention. “I remember early on, Karl Rove sent me a check—it was big news, the fact that someone of his stature would actually take a bet on someone who was such a long shot,” Rubio said of his 2009 Senate campaign. “You would turn on the TV and there were ads that created a clear distinction, and did so in ways that were meaningful.”
American Crossroads Chief Executive Officer Steven Law then introduced some of the super PAC’s staff, kiddingly referring to general counsel Tom Josefiak as “the guy who keeps us from ever having to wear orange jumpsuits.” Then it was Rove’s turn. The strategist presented a detailed analysis of the most competitive Senate contests and his plan for winning them. Rove said his total budget was $300 million, with $200 million intended for the presidential race, $70 million for the Senate, and $32 million for the House. “We should sink Todd Akin,” he said about the Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, who is under pressure to leave the race following his comments about “legitimate rape.” Rove joked, “If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!” (Rove later apologized for the remark.)
The Republicans need four seats to gain a Senate majority, Rove continued. He felt “really good” about Nebraska and was optimistic about North Dakota, even though Democrats have a strong candidate in former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp. In Wisconsin, former Governor Tommy Thompson “has an excellent shot to win—he has a quirky, cross-party appeal.” Virginia is going to be tight. Of those, Rove declared, “we can win three.”
New Mexico, Hawaii, and Connecticut are “longer shots,” Rove went on, but “I think we’ve got a shot to take at least one of those three.” In Connecticut, Rove noted that Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment, whom he had once written off, was running a “really smart campaign.” And the state, he noted happily, had moved to the right. “Those affluent, socially liberal, economically conservative people in Fairfield County and the New York suburbs have finally figured out that their pocketbooks matter more than abortion.”
Rove said the biggest obstacle to Republican hopes of retaking the Senate is Akin in Missouri. “We don’t care who the nominee is, other than get Akin out,” he said. He listed five journeyman politicians in the state who are interested in taking Akin’s place should he leave the race. Then he added a surprising sixth name. “The rumor is that Jack Danforth is interested, which would be astonishing,” Rove said of the former Missouri senator who just turned 76. “And interestingly enough, the reason they’ve gotten interested in it is Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan. He said, ‘Romney’s serious about entitlement reform, and I’d like to be there for that battle.’”
If Missouri doesn’t work out, Rove identified Montana, where Republican Representative Denny Rehberg is attempting to unseat Democrat Jon Tester, as “our best other shot,” and Florida, where Representative Connie Mack is trying to push out longtime Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, as “a good shot.”
Rove then shared a little anecdote. Someone he described as a “benefactor” had recently contacted him, offering to donate $10 million to be deployed in Florida—$5 million for Mack’s Senate race against Nelson and $5 million for the presidential race. The donor named two conditions: One, his money had to be matched by other donors. And two, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had to start making phone calls on their behalf. Rove paused for effect and announced: “Jeb’s making phone calls for us!” The crowd erupted.
In Ohio, one of the states that has attracted the most political spending by outside groups like American Crossroads, Rove said he’d had a call from another unnamed out-of-state donor who told him, “I really like Josh Mandel,” the Ohio treasurer attempting to unseat Democrat Sherrod Brown. The donor, Rove said, had asked him what his budget was in the state; Rove told him $6 million. “ ‘I’ll give ya’ $3 million, matching challenge,’ ” Rove said the donor told him. “Bob Castellini, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, is helping raise the other $3 million for that one.”
An exception to Rove’s Senate optimism is Maine. Retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe is “still sitting on $3 million in hard money,” he said. “She’s going to use the money, her husband told me, for charitable and philanthropic efforts.” He looked around the room. “So if any of you gave her money, I would call and ask for your money back. If you do, give it to Charlie Summers, our Republican candidate.” His tone darkening, Rove added, “We’re gonna lose either [Summers] or Scott Brown,” the Massachusetts Republican running for reelection against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. “We can’t afford to lose both.”
After screening 14 television advertisements Crossroads had produced, ranging from anti-Obama ads to spots targeting Democratic Senate candidates in Virginia, Ohio, Montana, Florida, Massachusetts, and Nevada, former Mississippi governor and American Crossroads adviser Haley Barbour came in for the final push: “You all give so unbelievably generously,” he said. “But you know what, I don’t have any compunction about looking you in the eye and asking for more.