The message from Karl Rove's allies to rich donors is pretty simple: We need your cash to avoid repeating the problems that tanked our $300 million 2012 effort, and we can promise you anonymity.
The Conservative Victory Project, the new spin-off from Rove's Crossroads groups, will consist of a super PAC that discloses its donations, and POLITICO has learned it will also include a tax-exempt group that allows it to shield donors.
In essence, this is the GOP establishment's attempt to make candidates for Republican nominations prove themselves before blowing winnable elections like Todd Akin and Christine O'Donnell, and Rove's allies hope the combination of cash and scrutiny does the trick.
"This is a bad idea whose time has come," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a powerhouse fundraiser for Crossroads, said of the new organization, according to an email Monday to donors from Steven Law, head of the Crossroads groups and Conservative Victory Project.
Law outlined plans to essentially perform oppo research and grade potential candidates on a variety of factors that might affect their ability to win a general election contest, including using fundraising reports "like earnings calls" to evaluate "the competitiveness of candidates." And he signaled that Crossroads would mobilize other big-money groups in its network to help avert damaging primaries.
All that sounds good to some top big-money players.
Minnesota media mogul Stan Hubbard, who has written big checks to Crossroads and other conservative groups, said the GOP has had too many candidates who are "nut cases" and pledged to donate and raise money for Conservative Victory Project.
"Some areas obviously are more conservative in their constituencies than others," Hubbard said. "But I don't think anybody anywhere with any sense is going to want to elect a candidate who says, 'If your daughter gets raped, it's God's will'," he said, referring to Richard Mourdock, who defeated incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana in the 2012 GOP primary only to lose the general election after suggesting that "God intended" pregnancies occurring from rape. "I mean, give me a break, will you?" Hubbard said.
Rove, Law, Malek and their allies are going to need all the cash they can get, since the plan has sparked nearly unanimous opposition from anti-establishment deep-pocketed conservatives who have begun formulating their own big-money counter plans.
The resulting battle would pit two well-funded factions of the conservative base against one another in a set of expensive primaries that could drain resources, produce weakened nominees and set back the GOP's chances to retake the Senate and protect its House majority. And it would further complicate already tricky efforts to carefully reposition the GOP on hot-button issues like immigration, gun control and fiscal policy.
"This is a little bit like gang warfare right now," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a tea-party-linked nonprofit that spent more than $60 million in the 2012 cycle, including backing candidatesopposed by Rove's allies.
FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, American Majority Action, Tea Party Express and the Family Research Council combined to spend $137 million for the 2012 cycle, according to a POLITICO analysis of tax and campaign filings and interviews -- meaning they could mount major efforts against Conservative Victory Project.
And that doesn't even include Americans for Prosperity, the nonprofit backed by Charles and David Koch that had a$140 million 2012 budget and has a history of tension with Rove's network. AFP President Tim Phillips told POLITICO his group was considering playing in primaries in 2014 for the first time, but when asked whether that means it might square off with the Conservative Victory Project, he said, "We have not made final decisions on 2014 yet."
Not all the conservative groups balking at Rove's plan share the exact same agenda, of course. But they are united by their opposition to a primary strategy focused on electability and handed down from inside the Beltway.
The new Rove-Law effort is further complicated by widespread skepticism on the right about the anemic rate of return on the historic 2012 spending spree by Crossroads and other conservative groups trying to defeat President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates.
The super PAC and 501(c)(4) nonprofit arms of Crossroads spent more than $300 million. But of the 31 races in which they reported aired ads, the Republicans won only nine. And since they spent $137 million on the presidential race, less than 5.7 percent of their total spending went toward helping winning candidates, POLITICO found.
In his Monday evening email, Law seemed cognizant of both the controversial nature of the plan and potential donor leeriness about breaking out the checkbook for another Rove-Law effort.
"This is a sensitive project, and we want to pursue it as sensitively as we can," Law wrote, explaining that the Crossroads team is "completing a report" of "all of our activities last year, as well as external factors that contributed to last year's deeply disappointing results."
Though a spokeswoman for Barbour said he "is actually not involved directly" in Conservative Victory Project, Law cited Barbour's endorsement in arguing the new organization isn't a bad idea. "In fact, our goal is to make this a good idea -- by trying to bring conservative groups together to agree on winsome, high-quality candidates wherever possible," Law wrote. "And where that's not possible, we need to preserve our ability to compete."
But Rove's involvement in primaries could inflame opponents, predicted Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund PAC. "Their activities are going to actually have the opposite effect of what they're trying to do," he said. "It could actually make it easier for conservative candidates to win primaries."
Kibbe welcomed the prospect of squaring off against the Conservative Victory Project, asserting, "The guys who fund groups like Rove's want to re-establish that they're in charge, but they just don't understand the inevitable decentralization and democratization of politics."
And Club for Growth President Chris Chocola added that Rove and Law have gotten CFG donors' attention and "may energize the groups that they view as 'the problem.'"
He said, "When you think about a Republican primary, and you think about a principled conservative versus a moderate Republican -- well, our model wins more often."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said his group will focus on a few races -- primarily in the Senate. He said it's just as well that "the moderate Republicans who have been involved in these primaries behind the scenes [are] making it clear that they intend to engage in primaries and defeat conservatives."
Both tea party firebrand Rep. Steve King, a favorite of the anti-establishment crowd, and fellow Rep. Tom Latham, a favorite of the establishment crowd, have expressed interest.
Chocola signaled his preference for King in a joint MSNBC appearance with Law on Tuesday morning, pointing out that Latham "has a less-than-stellar score with us on economic issues," while Law, in an interview unveiling his new group, singled out King as the type of candidate it would target. Referring to Akin -- the former congressman who imploded after winning the 2012 GOP nomination for a Missouri Senate seat when he asserted that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant -- Law told The New York Times,"We're concerned about Steve King's Todd Akin problem."
Latham dodged a question about whether he thought he -- or Republicans, generally -- could benefit from the new Rove-Law project.
"They are going to do what they want to do," he said. "I'm not looking for help from anybody."
If tea-party-backed candidates lose GOP primaries after they're attacked by Rove's group, the Tea Party Express might support them as third-party candidates, suggested the group's founder Sal Russo. His group has spent $17 million in the past two election cycles and is credited with boosting a pair of 2010 Senate candidates to GOP primary victories only to see them lose general elections that Rove and his allies deemed winnable.
"We discourage our people from supporting third-party candidates by saying 'that's a big mistake. We shouldn't do that'," he said. "But if the position [Rove's allies] take is rule or ruin -- well, two can play that game. And if we get pushed, we're not going to be able to keep the lid on that."
Malek, of American Action Network, rejected complaints from conservative groups that Rove and his allies were trying to exert inordinate control on the political process, pointing out that "the Club for Growth has had the wherewithal to promote candidates of their liking, and they have in some cases been constructive. So I don't understand their objections to Crossroads doing the same thing."
And he brushed aside concerns that spending big money during the primaries could burn out conservative donors before the general election.
"There is always going to be wasted money spent in a contested primary -- money that you wish would go towards in a general election," he said. "But out of this sometimes messy process can emerge really good candidates." Plus, he added, "donors really appreciate and want" opportunities to play in primaries.
The biggest of the conservative megadonors, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson -- who spent more than $100 million, including checks to Rove and Koch-backed groups -- trying to defeat Obama and other Democrats, hasn't decided whether to give to the new Rove group. "At this point, he is not actively engaged on any of this political maneuvering taking place," said a source close to Adelson.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former National Congressional Committee chairman, also cited Club for Growth to explain why he wasn't worried about primary fights.
"I think the more the merrier in primaries," Cole said. "I don't have any problem with Karl doing that. But I don't have a problem with Club for Growth doing that either."
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