Just this week, a tea party group grafted his image over a Nazi in an email pitch. Newt Gingrich, who spent much of 2012 lambasting Rove and the rest of the GOP establishment, faulted Rove for trying to handpick candidates. And last week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad spoke publicly about phoning Rove to tell him his latest venture was ill-conceived.
Such open season on Rove would have been unimaginable even six months ago, as the Crossroads groups he co-founded cruised along to a $300 million fundraising goal. But that was before November, when a bad election night was capped by a bad Rove performance on Fox News -- a call heard 'round the world as he insisted the presidential race, which the cable network had just called for Barack Obama, was far from over.
He's been re-signed by Fox, which guarantees him a powerful bully pulpit going forward. But, while it might be a stretch to say he's gone from guru to goat, he will have to spend months making a case to skeptical donors, several Republican fundraisers conceded.
"He's got a donor backlash and he's got an activists backlash," said one prominent Republican donor. Several people who cut big checks to Crossroads feel burned, this person said, adding some believe Rove is letting his group off too easy with his insistence that the problem last year was bad candidates.
"This idea that he's the curator" of the Republican Party has taken a beating, said the donor. Further, the donor said -- echoing sentiments made by others -- the Times story about the Conservative Victory Project made both Crossroads and Rove a focus, as opposed to the process of picking candidates. And it set CVP up in direct opposition to another major conservative outside group, Club for Growth, that has been able to tout electoral successes.
To be sure, Rove remains a serious figure within the party -- one who a number of donors still respect immensely -- as evidenced by how few people would criticize him on the record.
Still, Gingrich's column put a fine point on a common gripe among activists about Rove's approach. Though CVP's aim is to help prevent Republicans from nominating disastrous candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, it fails to account for the fact that some establishment-preferred Senate nominees lost, too.
"In seven of the nine losing races, the Rove model has no candidate-based explanation for failure," Gingrich wrote on the conservative site Human Events in an op-ed piece. "Our problems are deeper and more complex than candidates. Handing millions to Washington-based consultants to destroy the candidates they dislike and nominate the candidates they do like is an invitation to cronyism, favoritism and corruption."
"I think he made a strategic mistake in going after the tea party," said one Republican donor. "That front page in the Times didn't help it."
The problem, the donor said, is "we have no messenger and no message." And before people write more checks, the person said, they want to hear from Rove about what will be different.
A few rich Republicans have flatly rejected solicitations from Rove since Election Day, according to a GOP strategist who works with donors.
"They think he just screwed up," said the strategist, predicting that Rove would never be able to raise as much as he did for Crossroads in 2012. "I still think he'll have tens of millions to play with. I have no doubt that he'll do $40 [million] to $60 million, but I don't think he'll ever see the $350-million mark again."
In an interview on Fox News' "Hannity" Wednesday night, Rove took umbrage at Bob Woodward's recent criticism of him and defended his effort to sway primaries. Woodward said over the weekend that Rove was trying to create a "politburo" to ordain candidates.
"The last time I checked the Politburo ... oversaw the extermination of tens of millions of people and during the Cold War threatened the United States with nuclear annihilation," Rove said, "and just because Woodward is a center-left journalist, he can get away with calling me a communist and nobody is bothered by this."
As for CVP, he added: "Look, if you take the attitude that nobody ought to be involved in primaries, fine. But if you take the attitude that some groups ought to be able to be involved in primaries and not other groups, then there's a little hypocrisy there. And we have a right just like everybody else to be involved in a low-key collegial fashion."
Rove referred a call from POLITICO to Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio, who was bullish about how the group will do this cycle.
"We're confident we're going to have the funding we need" to be a significant player in 2014 races, he said.
Collegio added: "Gingrich is right that we need [good] candidates across the board. ... what created the media flashpoint is the cases of tea party candidates failing were far more spectacular than the slow-motion defeats of some of the more establishment candidates. But this was never about picking a fight with the tea party. This was always about something we should all agree with, which is finding the best candidates for general elections."
Two sources with knowledge of Crossroads' fundraising insisted it has fared well, so far.
A senior Republican operative was harsher in assessing Rove's critics. That people who are "working and living in Alexandra, Va., would complain that somebody actually isn't making a living off what he's doing ... and call him an inside-the-Beltway [person] is laughable." Rove has said that he makes nothing off Crossroads and his supporters have angrily pushed back on the notion that his efforts are motivated by self-enrichment.
Another strategist, who's worked with outside groups, took note that one of Gingrich's complaints was with "billionaires" picking candidates. Gingrich was famously kept alive as a presidential candidate by more than $20 million in super PAC donations from Sheldon Adelson, the Nevada casino magnate who has long adored the former House speaker.
Dave Carney, who spent years as Rick Perry's top political strategist and is well familiar with Rove, took a kinder approach.
"Karl wears big boy pants," he said. "He is in the arena trying to be a positive force. Not everything a person attempts works out as intended and politics is a very public spectacle and all of your warts and failings are on display in HD! Criticism is a byproduct of this business and if Karl had thin skin he would have been a college history teacher a long time ago."
The schadenfreude is not surprising considering Rove has a number of enemies in the consulting class and has been, in many ways, the shadow leader of the party for years.
"Nobody played more ironclad hardball than Karl for a long, long time," said one operative. "When you don't have all the power or cards, don't be surprised [that] when you make mistakes ... that long knives come out."
Chris Chocola, head of the Club for Growth, was magnanimous about Rove, saying that despite the "repackaging" of Crossroads and "asking the wrong questions and identifying the wrong problem," Rove has " done a lot of good things and he's a smart guy."
However, Chocola added, "He's taken a wrong turn here."
Not everyone believes Rove's fortunes have taken a hit.
"I don't know if he's going to have a problem or not, it's hard for me to see," said Fred Zeidman, a Texas-based Republican donor with deep ties to George W. Bush's world.
"It's hard for me to see" that happening, he added. "He played to the base for so long, and they loved him ... he is no less smart than he ever was and he realizes we've got to win."
"Do I think he might have problems raising money from some of the folks that gave him money last time? [Possibly] ... but again for every door that closes, I think another one will open. ... He admits his own mistakes, for lack of a better word, and he's got his finger on the pulse of where America is."
Another GOP strategist who's worked with outside groups described the attacks on Rove this week as "over the top," and suggested that groups like the Club for Growth are using him as a straw man to motivate a donor base that is as listless after the 2012 cycle as anyone else's.
While anger with Rove is running deep now, a Republican donor who speaks with him frequently said the likeliest outcome is that people come back to him later this year, given that there are few other options.
Asked why, the donor said, "because what else do they have to do?"
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