Super PAC Wars—Can Carl Rove Buy GOP Winners?
Business + Economy

Super PAC Wars—Can Carl Rove Buy GOP Winners?


For Super PACs, campaign money is supposed to fix problems. That might not be the case for the latest venture by Republican strategist Karl Rove.

The architect of George W. Bush’s campaign juggernaut announced the formation this month of the Conservative Victory Project. It’s a cash bulwark meant to stop the kind of Tea Party firebrands who can notch a win in the Republican Senate primary, even as their public remarks estrange and offend voters in the general election.

Two high-profile disasters supposedly galvanized the project: the botched Senate campaigns of Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri. Both gave unsympathetic comments about rape and abortion that put their candidacies last year into freefall.

But there’s a flaw in the Super PAC line of thinking. The kinds of candidates that Rove might seek to protect actually outspent the upstarts who defeated them in 2010 and 2012. Candidates like Mourdock, Akin, and others had smaller war chests, yet they connected better with a party faithful that has shifted further to the right.

Simply pumping more money into primaries is unlikely to change this dynamic, according to the outside political groups that helped fund some of these successful challengers.

“Most of our candidates never have cash advantages,” said Barney Keller, communications director at the Club for Growth. “You don’t need a lot of money to win a Republican primary, if you have a clear, convincing, conservative economic message.”

When Indiana state treasurer Mourdock upset the incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary last year, federal filings show the total spending by his campaign and the outside groups backing him was $4.3 million. Lugar was able to leverage $7.9 million, or $3.6 million more.

Lugar’s deep pockets—the result in part of six terms in the Senate—could not overcome Tea Party frustration with his record. They were rankled by his support of the DREAM Act to give the children of illegal aliens a pathway to citizenship and his approval of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.

Akin is a slightly different case as multiple super PACs, including the Club for Growth, refused to support his candidacy.

“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by Rove, told The New York Times about their new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”

Not every upstart lost in the general election. Utah Sen. Mike Lee—who also faced a massive cash disadvantage—and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio both triumphed in 2010. During the 2012 election, Sen. Ted Cruz overcame a $5.7 million shortfall to beat Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Lonestar state’s Republican primary.

It’s critical to note that money still matters to a certain extent. The emergence of Super PACs like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund basically narrowed the spending gap to a much more manageable level. 

“Without Super PAC spending on TV, Ted Cruz would have been outspent approximately 7-2 in the final week of the campaign,” according to a Club for Growth memo. “With outside groups, pro-Cruz forces were only outspent approximately 3-2.”

But the leg-up once conferred upon candidates with cash has started to become less important.

Adam Brandon, executive vice president of the Tea Party-affiliated FreedomWorks, told The Fiscal Times that voters care more about authenticity and respond to grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts, rather than the barrage of TV ads that Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, are best known for.

“The calculus that people are missing is it’s not about money anymore,” he said. “What’s happening now, for better or worse, is it’s all about the policy.”

Winning a primary requires a legion of volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls, and affectionately sell their candidate. The individuals most likely to make this time commitment are the true believers who are more absolutist on questions of taxes and the size of government.

Political consultants are somewhat blind to this shift because they owe much of their salaries to fees from making bigger and bigger ad buys. “There is an active financial incentive to keep this consulting-industrial complex up and running,” Brandon said. “These are their careers.”

As a result, it’s only natural that the Republican candidates succeeding in these primaries are eager to slash spending, are much blunter on social issues such as abortion, and are less likely to strike a deal with Obama on his desired tax hikes.

The same underlying trend of more ideological primary voters also applies to Democrats to a slightly lesser degree. But the entire situation reflects how the gridlock in Congress has been generated through the primary process in which voters support candidates who put their principles ahead of the need to compromise.

Many Republican voters grew disenchanted with their party’s establishment under George W. Bush, when the deficit continued and spending was ramped up despite the presence of GOP majorities in the House and Senate. “I’ve got to blame Karl Rove for this one,” Brandon said of the man known as “Bush’s brain.” That disenchantment created an audience of enthused conservative voters.

“You can’t put a price tag on citizen activism,” Brandon said, “and that’s where you have to win.”