WASHINGTON -– As a political handler, Karl Rove is a shapeshifter from way back.
In 1994 and 2000, he molded and ran George W. Bush for president as a tolerant, “compassionate conservative.” But in 2004, Rove placed anti-gay marriage initiatives on ballots in swing states to boost evangelical turnout –- and get Bush reelected.
In 1980, Rove was for George H.W. Bush when he was a pro-abortion rights candidate; 20 years later, Rove was for George W. when he was an anti-abortion candidate. But Rove also cut a deal with the ultimate anti-abortion candidate in 2000, then-Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who dropped out of the presidential race -– leaving Bush no serious challenger on the evangelical right. Somehow Ashcroft ended up as attorney general.
Now Rove is using his tactical skill and the money funnel he created, American Crossroads, to co-opt or crush the tea party -- whichever best suits his and the GOP’s interests as Republicans try to retake the Senate. That has meant selectively supporting very conservative candidates in this year's GOP primaries, but ones with enough establishment credentials to lure centrist voters in Southern and swing states.
In theory, a guy named Reince Priebus is chairman of the Republican National Committee. In reality, Rove -- with unrivaled access to money and manpower -- remains the closest thing there is to The Man to See in the GOP.
The latest proof of that came Tuesday in North Carolina, where Rove’s favorite establishment Republican to challenge Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan –- state House Speaker Thom Tillis -- won more than the 40 percent of the vote he needed in an eight-way race to avoid a damaging runoff for the GOP Senate nomination.
Tillis was Rove’s pick all the way, and American Crossroads backed him up with $1.5 million in advertising.
To be sure, Tillis is no moderate.
He froze teacher pay, and dismissed complaints as “whining from losers.” He talked about wanting to “divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.” As speaker, he pushed North Carolina to the right on issue after issue.
But Rove’s calculation is that, as House speaker, Tillis will have just enough of an aura of legislative and governmental responsibility and caution to avoid the image of simpleminded Luddite thinking that scared voters away from tea party candidates who won primaries in 2010 and 2012.
The same calculus is at work with another Rove ally, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is facing flailing tea party challenger Matt Bevin in a May 20 primary that the incumbent senator is predicted to win handily.
McConnell, who has a record of doing last-minute budget and spending deals despite his anti-Washington rhetoric, moved to the right in the Senate in the last year or two as he realized the threat the tea party posed –- a threat made manifest by the 2010 victory (against McConnell’s handpicked candidate) of Dr. Rand Paul.
McConnell’s handlers expect Paul, who has kept his distance from the primary, to help heal the wounds within the GOP after it's over.
But how will McConnell appeal to centrist conservative Democrats and others he needs to win the general election against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes?
According to one of his key advisors, Jesse Benton, McConnell’s appeal will be based in part on his history as a legislator, with five terms under his belt in the U.S. Senate and a record before that as county administrator in Louisville.
“Mitch looks to his conservative principles first,” Benton told The Huffington Post. “But if he can’t get everything he wants, he isn’t afraid to look for compromise. It’s not his first choice, but it is not a dirty word.”
In other words, after vowing to “crush” the tea party “everywhere,” McConnell, Tillis and others think they can win by offering themselves as experienced legislators and/or men and women with establishment credentials.
That is a risky strategy at a time when the approval rating of Congress nears single digits and faith in political leaders is at a low ebb.
But it is a risk that Rove is taking, and he generally knows what bets to make.