WASHINGTON — In a campaign season of anti-establishment ferment, some of the Republican Party's best-known insiders are building an ambitious fundraising machine for the fall elections and beyond.
They started with a bang in April, cashing a $1 million check from a Texas oil magnate. After a quiet May, friends and foes are watching to see if the new organization's core group, American Crossroads, can reach its goal of raising $52 million by November.
Karl Rove, who was President George W. Bush's top political strategist, and Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party chairman and White House aide, modeled their network on successful operations created by Democrats several years ago.
American Crossroads is a 527 organization – named for a section in the tax law – that is exempt from limits on campaign fundraising and spending that apply to party-affiliated groups. It can tap rich conservatives, such as Trevor Rees-Jones, president of Dallas-based Chief Oil and Gas, who chipped in the first $1 million.
But eyebrows rose in political circles when the group filed its next monthly report with the Internal Revenue Service, showing only $200 raised in May.
Steven Law, a former U.S. Chamber of Commerce lawyer and now president of American Crossroads, said the group has about $30 million in pledges that Rove, Gillespie and others secured during recent trips to various cities.
"We feel very good about the progress we've made," Law said, predicting a strong fundraising report for June.
He said the idea for American Crossroads grew from talks last fall involving Rove, Gillespie and other conservatives who feel liberals outhustled the GOP after the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in 2002 and subsequent court rulings set new limits – and opportunities – for political activities.
The goal, Law said, is to build "an enduring and robust outside organization that can, in the long run, compete with the very successful groups the Democrats have built."
Pro-Democratic groups that Law and others cite as role models include Moveon.org, Democracy Alliance – founded by liberal billionaire George Soros – and Democracy Corps, founded by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg.
Conservatives are hardly strangers to 527 groups, which must act independently of candidates and their official campaigns. The organizations are exempt from paying taxes, but donations to 527 groups are not tax-exempt.
In 2004, a 527 group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran ads attacking Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam War record, damaging the Massachusetts Democrat's bid to oust Bush.
The Swift Boat group stirred lots of controversy, and many people called its attacks untrue. American Crossroads undoubtedly will rile Democrats, but its founders and leaders are mainstream, well-regarded Republicans with experience in the White House, Congress and national campaigns.
Four affiliated political groups, some of them several years old, are working closely with American Crossroads. They don't hesitate to admit they are trying to catch up with Democratic rivals.
A Gillespie-founded group called Resurgent Republic "seeks to replicate on the right the success Democracy Corps has enjoyed on the left," it says on its Web site. The group focuses on political research and messaging.
The other affiliated organizations are:
_American Action Network, which will conduct polls, place TV ads and provide other services for conservative candidates. Its officers include former Nixon White House aide Fred Malek and former GOP Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
_American Action Forum, a related "policy institute."
_Republican State Leadership Committee, a 527 group that helps Republicans in state elections.
The blue chip pedigrees of the groups' leaders may seem somewhat at odds with the anti-establishment energy coursing through conservative communities. Led by the tea party movement, the fervor already has cost a Republican senator and two House members their seats in party primaries.
American Crossroads, however, seems to have no qualms about backing tea party favorites. Among its first actions was spending $360,000 on TV ads in Nevada criticizing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces tea party-backed Republican Sharron Angle this fall.
Law said his group also will try to oust Democratic senators in Arkansas, Colorado and Washington state, and to help Republicans win open Senate seats in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. He said American Crossroads will get involved in about a dozen House races. Some Republican insiders want that number expanded.
Buying TV attack ads is the splashiest way for a 527 group to draw attention. But many GOP operatives hope American Crossroads will spend heavily on voter turnout efforts, an area where they feel Democrats and their labor union allies have excelled.
Law said his group will engage in "the full range of political activity," including advertising, mail, phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts.