DES MOINES, Iowa -- Turmoil deepened among leading Republicans over efforts to ward off controversial candidates in the next election, as Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad blasted a new candidate-steering plan by Karl Rove and warned him to stay out of state and congressional races.
"I basically told Karl Rove that what he was doing is counter-productive and he needs to stay out of it," said Branstad, recounting a phone call to Rove, the leader of the new Conservative Victory Project.
In the aftermath of last fall's disappointing election outcome for the GOP, party leaders have been focusing on fielding more candidates with broad appeal - and fewer unpredictable ones - but have split bitterly over how to do it, worsening party tensions.
The push was prompted in part by the defeat of Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who lost races the GOP expected to win. The two, who were backed by ultraconservative Tea Party groups, suffered after making controversial comments about rape, and their losses helped kill GOP chances of winning control of the Senate.
The Rove-backed group is planning to raise money and run ads in primary election campaigns to help candidates seen as more attractive to general election voters. The effort is intended to counterbalance fundraising groups that boosted strong conservatives in primary races.
But the targeted effort conflicts with a more diplomatic approach favored by Branstad and other mainstream Republicans wary of offending important officeholders and factions. Branstad, who is influential as the five-term governor of a political swing state that hosts the first nominating contest of each presidential campaign, was especially inflamed by indications the Rove organization would target Iowa arch-conservative Rep. Steve King if he tried to run for the state's open Senate seat in 2014.
There is similar tension about Republican candidates in West Virginia, where the GOP hopes to pick up a seat long held by Democrats, and in Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss' retirement has set off an internal fight between hard-right conservatives and the GOP establishment.
Branstad, in an interview with the Associated Press, said Rove's plan to use fundraising and negative advertising against suspect Republicans was "a mistake."
"If some outside group that has no connection to Iowa attacks somebody from Iowa, that is not smart," Branstad said.
In the weeks after Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement, Branstad has used private breakfasts with King and his House colleague Tom Latham to discuss who would be the strongest contender for seat, which has been held by Democrats for more than 30 years.
News of Rove's plans inflamed King, prompting him to issue an angry fundraising appeal in which he declared, "Nobody can bully me out of running."
Representatives of Conservative Victory Project did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a New York Times story earlier this month, organization director Steven Law was quoted as saying, "We're concerned about Steve King's Todd Akin problem...All of the things he's said are going to be hung around his neck."
King has strong support among conservatives but also a reputation for provocative statements. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he said a victory by Democrat Barack Obama would be welcomed by terrorists. "If he is elected president, then the Islamist, the al-Qaida, the radical Islamists and their supporters will be dancing in the streets."
King's devout followers, among Iowa's most conservative, were incensed at the news of Rove's group. But so were traditional GOP stalwarts like Richard Schwarm.
"I think that was a total backfire on Rove's part," said Richard Schwarm, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman and longtime Rove friend.
If It's Sunday, It's Meet The Press
Feb. 27, 2000: George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove discusses the 2000 Election on NBC's "Meet the Press" (Photo by Michael Smith)
The Butterfly Ballot
Nov. 9, 2000: Karl Rove (L), Chief strategist for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, holds up a copy of a Cook County, Illinois, election butterfly ballot. Rove questioned statements from the campaign of Democratic candidate Al Gore that criticized the use of the same-style ballot in Palm Beach county, Florida. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan. 22, 2001: Senior George W. Bush staff members, Counselor to the President Karen Hughes (L), Senior Political Advisor to the President Karl Rove (2nd L), National Security Advisor to the President Condoleezza Rice (2nd R), and Presidential Spokesman Ari Fleischer (R) hold their right hands up during a swearing-in ceremony of dozens of staff members in the East Room of the White House. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Side By Side
Sept. 27, 2001: U.S. President George W. Bush (L) walks with his chief political adviser Karl Rove after returning to the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Oct. 5, 2001: U.S. President George W. Bush's senior adviser Karl Rove makes a signal to a White House media member as he stands in the wings of the Rose Garden in Washington, D.C. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Feb. 20, 2003: White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove (R) and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice walk toward the Marine One at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Making A Point
May 7, 2003: Bush political advisor Karl Rove speaks at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Michael Springer/Getty Images)
Can I Have Your Egg Autograph?
May 7, 2003: Bush political advisor Karl Rove is asked to autograph eggs at a 'Politics & Eggs' luncheon at the Bedford Inn in Bedford, New Hampshire. (Photo by Michael Springer/Getty Images)
May 8, 2004: Karl Rove, chief political advisor to President Bush, speaks to graduates of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Photo by Eric Brady/Getty Images)
Shield The Security Advisor
Dec. 3, 2004: Presidential advisor Karl Rove(L) jokingly shields National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice from the press in Washington, D.C. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Do You See What I See?
July 14, 2005: U.S. President George W. Bush and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove walk from the Oval Office across the South Lawn of the White House toward Marine One in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Oct. 25, 2005: President Bush's senior advisor Karl Rove drives his car out of his driveway in Washington D.C. Rove is a key figure in the CIA leak investigation headed by Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mirror, Mirror On The Car
Oct. 27, 2005: President Bush's senior advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove looks through his sideview mirror as he arrives at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC. Rove was a key figure in the CIA leak investigation headed by Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Feb. 27, 2006: White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card (L) whispers in the ear of Senior White House Advisor Karl Rove as US President George W. Bush (not pictured) addresses a meeting of the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
May 15, 2006: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove holds up a copy of 'Kings of the Hill,' by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne Cheney, while delivering remarks on economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Jan. 25, 2007: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (L), Communications Director Kevin Sullivan (C) and Spokesperson Tony Snow jokingly drink water at the same time before U.S. President George W. Bush participated a round table event at Saint Luke's East Hospital in Lee's Summit, Missouri. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Look, Obama's In The Paper
Jan. 17, 2007: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove points to today's edition of USA Today with U.S. Senator Barack Obama, D-IL, on the front page as he awaits U.S. President George W. Bush's arrival at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Wiping His Forehead
March 28, 2007: Karl Rove, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, wipes his forehead before rapping with 'Who's Line is it Anyway?' stars Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood during the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, D.C. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Hug It Out
Aug. 13, 2007: U.S. President George W. Bush embraces Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor, after a statement by Rove at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Oct. 21, 2008: Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, speaks during a panel discussion at the 2008 Mortgage Bankers Association Conference and Expo in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Hold The Phone
Aug. 28, 2012: Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, walks on the floor before the start of the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)