By Michael Tackett
WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, Republicans have looked to Karl Rove for the solution. Now, a growing number see him as the problem.
Rove, 62, has put his imprimatur and donor money behind the Conservative Victory Project, formed to choose more electable Republican candidates and avoid such defeats as those of Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, two races the party was banking on winning as part of expanding its U.S. Senate caucus.
That has drawn fire from numerous party activists, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and even businessman Donald Trump, all of whom say Rove shouldn't try to play kingmaker.
"I am unalterably opposed to a bunch of billionaires financing a boss to pick candidates in 50 states," Gingrich wrote in a Human Events article published Wednesday. "No one person is smart enough nor do they have the moral right to buy nominations across the country," added Gingrich, whose 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination was aided by $21.5 million in donations from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family to a friendly super-political action committee.
The fight between Rove and other Republican officials and activists is a proxy for the larger issues the party faces as its traditional apparatus wanes in campaigns dominated by independent groups and big-dollar donors.
"The advent of super-PACs has been at the expense of the two-party system," said Terry Holt, a Republican adviser to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. "In the current context, where the party isn't as strong and big-donor influence can go its own way, you just have fewer ways for the party to stay broad."
Rove is "responding to his experience and to the very real need for the party to be more competitive again," Holt said.
The rift comes as party officials are working to build unity, become more competitive in statewide and national races and avoid confrontation with the anti-tax tea party supporters who provide an animated activist base even as many of their candidates alienate voters.
"This dust-up is the latest skirmish in the never-ending war between GOP pragmatists and purists," said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College.
"The Conservative Victory Project wants to avoid the nomination of incompetent candidates, even if that means supporting a less conservative candidate over a more conservative candidate," said Pitney. "Its critics see it as an effort to purge strong conservatives from the party."
For Rove, it's a rare moment where criticism is coming from fellow Republicans rather than Democrats.
He became a target for partisan attacks after serving as the principal strategist for President George W. Bush's rise in Texas politics and two presidential victories. In 2010, Rove helped organize two of the most active independent political organizations — bankrolled by unlimited funding from largely secret donors — in a further effort to shape elections and expand the Republican Party's influence.
American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies spent a combined $175.7 million on the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign spending. The Crossroads groups backed the unsuccessful presidential bid of Republican Mitt Romney, lost 10 of 12 targeted Senate races, and were defeated in four of nine House seats.
Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, a grassroots group that promotes limited government and Christian values, said Rove "blamed Akin and Mourdock, anything to hide his record, which is just beyond abysmal. We are saying we are not going to put up with this. He is not going to tell conservatives what to think and not going to pick our candidates."
Akin and Mourdock both lost to Democrats they had been favored to defeat after making controversial comments about rape.
Bozell and others cited a study by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that tracks political money, that found the American Crossroads groups had a success ratio of 1.29 percent of "$103,595,960 spent in the general election and ending in the desired result."
Rove declined an interview request. Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the Conservative Victory Project and American Crossroads, said the groups had "come to the conclusion that we need to increase the caliber of candidates running for office in Republican primaries, and our goal is to elect the most conservative candidates in primaries who can win" general election contests against Democrats.
"We have made absolutely clear we are not trying to pick a fight with the tea party," Collegio said. "We are simply trying to pick the best candidates available."
That's not how David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a Washington-based group that says it is "dedicated to restoring our government to citizens' control," sees it.
"I like it that voters get to decide," Bossie said. "I think Rove is trying to defend himself and deflect from his failure. I hear from donors. I hear from grassroots people across the country who are offended by the very fact that Karl Rove thinks he knows best."
"If American Crossroads has done a great job, why create some new entity with the name conservative in it?" Bossie asked. "So everybody thinks it's good because it is from a conservative outfit?"
Rove earned a rebuke from a leading Republican office- holder when the Conservative Victory Project indicated he would oppose Rep. Steve King of Iowa should the Republican who is a favorite of tea party activists make a bid for the Senate seat Democratic incumbent Tom Harkin is giving up in the 2014 election.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, also a Republican, said Rove should leave the primary to Iowans.
Tim Albrecht, Branstad's spokesman, said the governor "believes Karl Rove received his message, which is that meddling in the Iowa primary would be counter-productive to his efforts, and that Iowa Republicans will be making this decision."
Collegio said he had no information on any talks between Rove and Branstad.
"It sounds like somebody from D.C. and outside of states and congressional districts is trying to make decisions for a local area as to what's best for that local area, as if they know what is best," said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which is based in Woodstock, Ga., and says it has about 1,000 active local coordinators around the country.
"That's the antithesis of what our movement stands for," she said. "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."
The controversy prompted Trump to declare in one of many anti-Rove messages on Twitter: "I don't like bullies. I am not going to stand around and watch @KarlRove target the Tea Party. Karl Rove gave us Barack Obama. Loser."
John Weaver, the chief strategist for the 2012 presidential campaign of Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah, said his party is missing a larger point about policy.
"At the end of the day policy is politics," Weaver said. "It's kind of the self-appointment process that people don't like but at the end of the day primary fights should be over policy differences. To single out candidates and single out grass roots and spend more from sources not disclosed is not a healthy thing."