WASHINGTON – The internal conflicts that have roiled the Republican Party since its dismal showing in November appear to be deepening as conservative activists and tea party officials have begun to loudly resist an establishment effort to blame them for the GOP’s 2012 troubles.
The nation’s largest tea party organization is launching a new federal political action committee, Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, aimed at challenging GOP incumbents and other establishment candidates to adopt more conservative positions.
“If we are going to change Washington and save America, the tea party movement must hold every politician who supports higher taxes and even higher spending accountable — regardless of their political party. If that means we have to defeat some of these big-government politicians in primaries, so be it,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, in a statement earlier this month.
The move appeared to be a direct response to an effort by veteran strategist Karl Rove and other GOP establishment figures to wrest control of the Republican Party from candidates and activists whom they view as unelectable and harmful to the party’s future.
After spending more than $300 million in what was widely regarded a losing effort in the 2012 elections, Rove and his fundraising allies have launched the Conservative Victory Project to help fight primary battles, especially for the Senate, against candidates they think will hurt the party’s chances in the 2014 midterms.
Many Republicans think that the party blew a chance to take control of the Senate in 2012 — when they needed to win four Democratic-held seats — by offering up a number of candidates who were too flawed to win.
They point to Missouri and Indiana, where Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, respectively, lost what had been scored early on as winnable races for the Republicans.
In both cases, the party’s chances dimmed after the candidates made controversial comments about rape and abortion. Frustrated by those outcomes, Rove and his group will seek more control in the primary process through ad buys and the vetting of candidates.
“We have been the largest backer of very conservative candidates and tea party candidates in general elections, and in most cases, we’ve been pleased with the results,” said Steven J. Law, president of the super PAC American Crossroads, who will direct the Conservative Victory Project’s efforts. “But in a few instances, we realized that the candidate-vetting before the primary was slim to none. And the problems that the candidate had made it impossible to win even when we had an excellent shot at winning the seat.”
But the conservatives who are the target of the effort say that Rove and the establishment hardly fared better than the tea party last year.
They pointed out that American Crossroads supported no winning candidates and had a 1.29 percent success rate and that a number of well-funded establishment candidates, such as George Allen in Virginia and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, lost Senate races.
“Karl Rove is trying to rebrand himself so people will forget all the losses in 2012,” said Martin, the Tea Party Patriots official. “But he sounds like big-daddy government: ‘I know what’s best, you need to listen to us and do what we say.’ It is the antithesis of what the GOP stands for. Primary voters want to pick their candidates.”
In addition to raising money, the tea party activists are also seeking to paint Rove, who was President George W. Bush’s political director, as a creature of Washington.
These internal clashes come as the GOP is struggling to figure out ways to broaden its appeal to voters.
But the animus toward Rove, who declined an interview request, runs deeper than the current fight suggests.
In 2002, Rove mounted a similar effort to boost candidates in dozens of GOP primary races, including Senate races in Georgia, North Carolina, Minnesota and South Dakota, leading local Republicans to protest the attempts to control races.
Already, Rove’s group is eyeing the Senate race in Iowa and have singled out Rep. Steve King as possibly too conservative to win a statewide race.
Law said that American Crossroads has been a strong backer of very conservative and tea party candidates in the past, including King, who got $400,000 for his House race from the super PAC.
“Our goal is not to pick a fight,” Law said. “It’s to pick the best candidates.”
Rove, who appeared on Fox News recently to respond to the criticism, said that donors expect better candidates and better results.
“The question is not tea party or not,” he said, noting that American Crossroads spent $55 million on behalf of tea party candidates. “It’s a question of whether they are a bad candidate or not.”
Law says that the Conservative Victory Project’s first priorities are the Democratic-controlled seats in states that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried by a large margin.
But some more-conservative candidates are already feeling picked on.
King, who has yet to decide whether he will run, pushed back against Law’s comments in a letter to his supporters and appealed for donations.
“I’m no stranger to outlandish attacks like this. They said I couldn’t win in 2012 — the entire political machine was against me — but I soundly defeated my opponent by 8 percentage points,” he wrote. “So let me be clear. Nobody can bully me out of running for the U.S. Senate, not even Karl Rove and his hefty war chest.”
Conservatives think that the Rove effort could have the effect of rallying and unifying the tea party movement.
“They are creating the dynamic they hope to avoid and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa radio host. “I know conservatives who know and like Steve King, and they doubt he could win a statewide election. That’s what they said two weeks ago. But now they say, ‘Screw Rove, he’s got to run.’
“We are at a point now where you are almost better off in a Republican Party being endorsed by Barack Obama than Karl Rove. He is the reverse Midas.”