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Karl Rove and the Tea Party: What Really Happened

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Suddenly, the political world is all a-twitter about Karl Rove's Tea Party problem, or is it the Tea Party's Karl Rove problem? In the space of a few days, the man who was "Bush's Brain" in a corrupt White House and is now a $50 million bagman for corporate donors went from a basher of Delaware's, um, colorful social conservative GOP Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell to O'Donnell endorser to basher redux:

The latest from Rove came on Fox News Sunday, where he did little to hide his dismay that O'Donnell and her outrageous statements on everything from masturbation to "dabbling in witchcraft" would cost his Republican Party a gimme Senate seat in Delaware, and thus perhaps control of the next Congress.

"I, frankly, think a winning strategy requires coming to grips with these questions and explaining them in the most sympathetic way possible so that people unblock their ears in Delaware and begin hearing the broader message."

Really? As a progressive writer, I don't have a dog in the hunt between Rove and the right-wing groups that helped to nominate O'Donnell, but I do know this. If anyone needs to unblock his ears in 2010, it's the man that his colleagues on Fox News Channel still fawn over as "The Architect" of GOP success.

In researching my new book The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, I discovered that Rove was involved in a secret effort -- in Delaware specifically -- to tamp down Tea Party-flavored enthusiasm way back in December, when many pundits were still predicting that right-wing anger would eventually fade.

And that effort was so stunningly tone-deaf that it may have backfired and even played a role in rallying the anti-Obama troops so enthusiastically behind the unproven O'Donnell when 2010 arrived.

Ironically, Rove became a successful player in GOP politics and a top consultant through his ability -- starting as a leader of the Young Republicans back in the years of America's uber-resentment politician, Richard Nixon -- to tap into and identify with middle-class distrust of so-called pointy-headed elites, not to mention carry out the occasional Watergate-era-tinted political dirty trick.

But Rove's rise to a big White House office and now his role guiding $50 million in corporate-directed dollars through an ad hoc group called America's Crossroads has made him a scion of a conservative elite, an expert on the playbook of politics who met his match in a "grizzled" -- Rove's own word -- leather-jacket wearing Vietnam vet named Russ Murphy, leader of the Glenn Beck-inspired Delaware 9-12 Patriots.

As I chronicle in The Backlash, Rove came to lower Delaware in December 2009 to raise money for the Delaware GOP at a swank event on his new upscale turf, a country club called Baywood. Behind closed doors, Rove had a second mission -- a private session aimed at convincing the state's Tea Party activists to rally behind the Senate candidacy of Rep. Mike Castle, despite the fact that right-wingers felt betrayed by Castle's vote for the Obama-backed initiative on climate change.

Later, Rove would on Fox News describe three of the folks he met that day as "a nurse from a hospital, a grizzled Vietnam vet in a biker jacket, and a stay-at-home mom." Not Rove's usual circle these days, in other words.

That grizzled vet, 65-year-old ex-Marine Russ Murphy -- retired as a nuclear-plant security guard and long-haul trucker -- was a swirling mass of '60s-era resentments and rage at Barack Obama, whom he considers "fundamentally un-American." But now that raw flame was turning toward Karl Rove, surrogate for the establishment's Mike Castle, a direct descendent of Benjamin Franklin.

I met Murphy at a Milford, Del., diner a few days later. From my book:

"Bottom line, I sat there and it was somewhat condescending, Murphy tells you, sitting in the booth at the diner, "which I find hard to express to some of these people."

Murphy may not know a lot about polling and focus groups, but he knows when his band of Beck-inspired band of Tea Partiers has the upper hand with the GOP. Less than a year after he finished reading The 5000 Year Leap and answered the call from Glenn Beck to become "a September 12 man," the retired truck driver was in the driver's seat.

According to Murphy, there were open chuckles in the room when Rove praised Castle's years of public service, clueless that the congressman's long incumbency was such a drawback to the Tea Partiers. A Tea Party-friendly state senator named Colin Bonini tried to interpret, to little avail.

"I think Castle pretty much shot himself in the foot with these people, Murphy says Bonini told Rove. And Bonini is completely right in his assessment. Russ Murphy could care less about preserving Mike Castle's place in politics. He was on a bigger mission -- from God -- to save America.

"We haven't been involved in it all these years that they have and it's not our profession -- but this is our country. We're not idiots," Murphy said, lingering on that last word, his voice now steaming more than the mug of coffee on the Formica table before him. "They still don't understand -- it's like, we talked about the health bill. We discussed it a little bit and it's like, 'They're making headway, there's compromises being met,' and it's like they still don't get it. The majority of people don't want this!"

The rest is history. Rove went back to his lunches at the Capitol Grill, Russ Murphy and his fellow Tea Party Movement activists went to work. When O'Donnell stunned the GOP establishment and upset Castle last week, the first person she called on stage to take credit was Murphy of the Delaware 9-12 Patriots.

Rove always has the political calculus down pat, but he was too out-of-touch to understand the irrational rage of the Tea Parties, born of fear and anxiety over a multi-cultural America -- symbolized by Barack Obama -- and the collapse of the American middle class. It's not clear how the anti-Obama backlash plays out in the months ahead, but the Russ Murphys are now behind the wheel while the Karl Roves are standing on the curb, with little option but to go on Fox News, and whine.