New Rove Effort Has G.O.P. Aflame
By JEFF ZELENY
Published: February 6, 2013
WASHINGTON — Their battle with Democrats will have to wait. For now, Republicans have their hands full fighting one another.
The strategist Karl Rove and his allies are under withering criticism for creating the Conservative Victory Project, their effort to help rebuild the Republican Party and win control of the Senate. Their pledge to take sides in primary races in an effort to pick candidates they see as more electable has set off a fierce backlash from conservative activists.
“This is not Tea Party versus establishment,” Mr. Rove said, defending his new project on Fox News. “I don’t want a fight.”
Yet a fight has broken out this week across the conservative media spectrum, with Mr. Rove drawing the ire of Tea Party leaders and commentators who suggest that he and other party strategists are the problem, rather than the solution, to the challenges facing Republicans.
The Congressional elections may be 21 months away, but the dispute has taken on sudden urgency as primary contests are already taking shape, particularly in open Senate races. Republicans must pick up six seats to win a majority.
In Georgia, the contest to fill the seat of Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican who is retiring, drew its first contender on Wednesday as Representative Paul Broun announced his intention to run. His candidacy was welcomed more by Democrats than Republicans in Washington, largely because of a string of comments Mr. Broun has made that worry his party’s leaders about whether he has the discipline and broad appeal to win a general election.
Mr. Broun, a physician on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, attracted attention last fall for saying that “evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory — all of that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”
A former member of that committee is Todd Akin of Missouri, a Republican whose bid to move up to the Senate failed last year after he contended that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy. His defeat was one of many by Republicans that led American Crossroads, the “super PAC,” to create the Conservative Victory Project.
The project is intended to counter the work of other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles. It is the most vigorous effort yet by Republicans to try to impose discipline on the party, particularly in House and Senate primary races.
Several other Republicans in Georgia are considering running for the Senate. But the search for what kind of candidates the party should put forward — as well as whether leaders in Washington and the party’s top donors should even be involved in primary races — has focused new attention on the Republican infighting.
Chris Chocola, the president of Club for Growth, the conservative group that has taken an active role in Republican primaries, criticized the new effort by Mr. Rove. Mr. Chocola said it was incorrect to suggest that candidates backed by Tea Party groups were the only ones to lose last year, pointing to establishment Republicans defeated in Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
He said the “electability argument” Republican leaders make in Washington had produced candidates who have not been able to inspire conservative activists.
“It’s those pesky voters,” Mr. Chocola said in an interview. “They get to decide who the nominee is.”
The Conservative Victory Project, which will be run by Steven J. Law, Mr. Rove and the donors who built American Crossroads into the largest Republican super PAC of the 2012 election cycle, will start by intensely vetting prospective contenders for Congressional races. They said that they would raise tens of millions of dollars and run television advertising against any candidate who is seen as too flawed to win a general election.
“A disastrous candidate can lose anywhere,” said Mr. Law, the president of American Crossroads. “We have to be very careful about candidate selection even in deep red states.”
As the Republican feuding intensified, the party’s national chairman, Reince Priebus, indicated that he had no plans to step in as a referee. He sought to straddle both sides of the argument, saying that it was nothing new for Republican groups to get involved in primary races.
“Primaries can be a healthy process,” Mr. Priebus said in a statement on Wednesday, “and it’s positive to see any efforts to help support and elect conservative candidates.”
But the Republican acrimony has consumed conservative talk radio, cable television and blogs for much of the week. Mr. Rove has taken a thrashing, particularly from the radio host Mark Levin, who suggested that Mr. Rove and his allies needed “a hard, swift kick” off the public stage.
David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, wrote a piece on the Big Government Web site that declared, “The Civil War Has Begun
“This battle will be a long, hard slog against the establishment,” Mr. Bossie wrote, comparing the party’s conflict to the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The testiness became personal on Wednesday when Mr. Bossie and the leaders of two dozen conservative groups released a letter to American Crossroads calling for the dismissal of its spokesman, Jonathan Collegio, because he called the veteran conservative activist Brent Bozell “a hater” in a radio interview.
“You obviously mean to have a war with conservatives and the Tea Party,” the letter said. “Let it start here.”