WASHINGTON -- A firestorm on the right has greeted a new Karl Rove-backed super PAC aimed at knocking off weak conservative Senate candidates and protecting strong incumbents in GOP primaries, but the new PAC may well prove to be a plus in the eyes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
That’s not surprising: The model for the new super PAC, dubbed the Conservative Victory Project, is akin to one that McConnell has touted the need for at GOP events in recent years, two GOP fundraisers with good ties to the senator told Huffington Post. Both asked for anonymity to speak candidly about private events and discussions.
The two fundraisers explained that McConnell has several times lamented that, in the last two elections, weaker and unelectable Tea Party candidates have been winning more GOP primary battles, often with hefty financing from right-leaning groups like the Club for Growth. In some cases, the weaker candidates have also been backed by Democratic groups seeking to boost their own party’s prospects in the fall elections.
And the result wasn’t pretty for the GOP in either cycle. In 2012, two GOP Senate candidates with Tea Party backing lost their races last fall in Missouri and Indiana, helping Democrats expand their Senate majority. In the case of Missouri, McConnell strongly condemned Tea Party favorite Todd Akin for his incendiary comments about “legitimate rape,” and sent signals that Akin should consider dropping out before a candidate deadline passed last fall to avoid a debacle on Election Day. In 2010, Tea Party candidates in Delaware and Nevada lost races that more moderate Republicans may have been able to take.
McConnell’s office declined to comment on whether he backed Rove’s new super PAC or to address whether he had touted a similar idea at GOP events in recent years, as the two fundraisers told HuffPost. The senator’s spokesman also didn’t answer whether McConnell had ever discussed his general concerns or the need for such a PAC with Rove or Steven Law, the president of the Victory Project, or other Crossroads advisers.
The senator's office instead sent along a speech he'd delivered last summer at the American Enterprise Institute, a broad attack on what he sees as efforts by the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, to infringe on First Amendment rights of free speech in the political world, a cause he's long championed. The speech included an attack on Democratic proposals to require the disclosure of donors to nonprofit advocacy groups which, unlike super PACs, can keep the identities of donors secret.
This year McConnell’s own reelection bid in Kentucky may be threatened by a budding alliance between a liberal super PAC that’s reached out to Tea Party groups to help unseat the senator. McConnell last weekend announced his candidacy but as yet faces no formal Democratic or Tea Party challenger.
Rove, who famously co-founded American Crossroads and allied advocacy group Crossroads GPS, which spent tens of millions to help about 10 GOP Senate candidates last year, is now rolling out his new money machine to his network of wealthy donors to achieve better results. Overall the two Crossroads groups raked in more than $300 million with a primary mission of defeating President Barack Obama.
Law, the president of both the new super PAC and the two Crossroads groups, explained the rationale for the Victory Project to The New York Times thus: “There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected.” He added that the PAC wants to “pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”
Jonathan Collegio, a Crossroads spokesman, said it was “way too early to talk about any races” that the new PAC might get involved with, including Kentucky’s Senate contest if there's a primary challenge. Likewise, Collegio said it was "too early to talk about funding for the group."
Asked if Law had talked to McConnell about the concept of the Victory Project, Collegio responded by citing a statement Law made to The National Review that he’d not spoken to McConnell about the super PAC.
Collegio declined to say whether Rove or other Crossroads advisers like Haley Barbour or Ed Gillespie, both former chairs of the RNC, had spoken to the senator about the concept.
For its part, American Crossroads this week launched a $10,000 digital ad buy blasting potential Democratic challenger and actress Ashley Judd as a "radical Hollywood liberal" who, though a Kentucky native, is currently residing in Tennessee. And Rove boasted on Fox News Thursday night that there will be many more attacks on Judd coming. “We are making fun of her,” Rove said.
“It’s smart to go in early and help McConnell,” says veteran GOP lobbyist Charlie Black. “The more people in early to help the better.”
Black adds that Crossroads may help with more than ads. “I’ve heard they’ve voiced interest in doing more voter contact work” than in the past. Two other GOP operatives said they understand that Crossroads will deploy ground game efforts to bolster McConnell too.
While the new Victory Project, like the Crossroads groups, can accept unlimited funds, it has to operate independently of Senate campaign committees with regard to expenditures. But there are strong historic ties between the leadership of the new super PAC, American Crossroads and McConnell in the person of Steven Law, the president of the new PAC and the two Crossroads groups. Law was a top aide to McConnell for much of the 1990s, rising to chief of staff and executive director of the NRSC.
Law went on to be deputy secretary at the Labor Department under Secretary Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife. “Most of what I’ve learned in politics I learned from him,” Law told The Washington Post last fall about his years with the senator. A few GOP fundraisers say that, over the years, the senator and Law have had a kind of father-son relationship, but the Post reported that the two men seldom talk these days, presumably to avoid coordination issues.
McConnell hired Law in the late 80s soon after he’d graduated Columbia Law School and he moved up soon to big jobs with the senator. “It took me about a year to figure out he was the smartest guy on the staff,” McConnell said to the Post.
Not long after American Crossroads was launched in early 2010, Rove recruited Law who was then the top lawyer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be its president; and Rove tapped another McConnell ally and fellow Kentuckian, former RNC chairman Mike Duncan, to be chairman of Crossroads. Duncan has since left.
While campaign finance laws bar these super PACs from coordinating advertising and other expenditures with Senate or other campaign committees, the rules permit considerable leeway for fundraising assistance and some other contacts.
McConnell, for instance, was a featured speaker at two Crossroads fundraisers last year. By law, a Member of Congress could ask for a super PAC donation up to $5,000 per person, but cannot ask donors to write the unlimited checks that have fueled super PAC fundraising.
Perhaps more importantly, McConnell led Senate opposition to efforts by Democrats and watchdog groups to enact measures that would force non profit groups like Crossroads GPS to disclose the names of their donors, an effort that Rove and Law also strongly oppose.
Further, Rove has been a featured speaker at one exclusive NRSC event. One weekend last summer, Rove journeyed to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to speak at a posh retreat for big donors hosted by the NRSC where McConnell was a star attraction. Rove's talk has not been previously reported.
According to two attendees, Rove delivered an upbeat view of GOP prospects for regaining control of the Senate in 2012, an assessment that was probably predicated on the tens of millions being spent by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, to help some 10 GOP Senators and candidates. Rove boasted at the event that the Montana and Missouri seats were looking like sure bets, recalled one attendee. Incumbent Democratic senators won both races.
Rove’s rosy picture may have been colored by the ease with which his two groups were filling their coffers with seven- and eight-figure checks from conservative donors like casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Texas tycoon Harold Simmons. Simmons and a company he controls donated $19.5 million to American Crossroads, while Adelson and his wife chipped in $23 million. The Huffington Post has reported that Adelson gave Crossroads GPS $30 million more, according to two GOP fundraisers with ties to the casino baron.
It’s not known whether Adelson or Simmons will back the Conservative Victory Project or an allied nonprofit that’s also being formed.
One GOP fundraiser close to the Crossroads groups says he expects both Adelson and Simmons will support the new effort, adding that it seems to be “popular and getting traction” with some Wall Street donors. But the fundraiser added a strong caveat: “People in the New York financial world tend to be very results-oriented. They look at return on investment and the $300 million that was spent by the Crossroads groups did not get a good return on investment.”
The conservative reaction to the new Rove PAC has been fast and ferocious. “I think it’s going to be very harmful to Karl,” said Colin Hanna, who runs Let Freedom Ring, a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group that spent millions last year to try to defeat President Obama and has backing from such wealthy conservative donors as John Templeton, Jr. “Rove may be appointing himself the arbiter of conservative candidate selection but his motion may die for the lack of a second.”
Despite the loud backlash from conservatives, other moderate GOP groups subscribe to the goal of blocking ultra-conservative candidates from nabbing Senate nominations in the primaries. Venture capitalist Fred Malek, who founded the American Action Network, told The Huffington Post that the “donor community is tired of losing and wants to see nominees who can win.”
The Network has focused mainly on helping the GOP win House races, but Malek pointed out that his group had also run ads in some Senate primaries: The group ran ads to help Kelly Ayotte, who won in New Hampshire, and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost his primary battle to conservative darling Richard Mourdock, who went on to lose in November.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again in the future if we saw the need,” Malek said.
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