Rove’s Top Campaign Funding Groups Keep Low Profile In 2014 Elections
By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Not that long ago, Karl Rove emerged as a mastermind of a new type of campaign spending, leading a wave of outside groups whose ability to pour money into the 2010 midterm election helped Republicans gain control of the House and bolster GOP ranks in the Senate.
The former George W. Bush adviser’s reputation as a strategist soared — as did the often oversized caricature of him as a Republican boogeyman who could always be counted on to rattle the political left.
This midterm election cycle, though, is shaping up differently. Rove’s two funding groups, American Crossroads, a super PAC that discloses its spending, and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit that does not, are playing more of a supporting role.
The new stars of the dark money circuit are the billionaire Koch brothers, whose Americans for Prosperity has funneled a jaw-dropping $35 million so far into the midterm election cycle, much of it spent even before the first primary ballots were cast this spring.
Rove’s activity has paled by comparison. American Crossroads reported raising just $6 million in the first quarter of 2014 and both of Rove’s groups recently announced plans to spend $9.3 million on summer TV ads in four battleground states: Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina and Alaska.
That’s a fraction of the $175 million his groups spent in the 2012 election, or the $72 million they spent in the 2010 midterm. (Verifying expenditures is difficult because much of the money does not have to be disclosed in a timely way, leaving watchdog groups to cobble together estimates from various sources and estimates, including TV ad buys.)
While other national groups are now rushing to influence Mississippi’s Senate GOP runoff between incumbent Senator Thad Cochran and Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, Crossroads’ spokesman Paul Lindsay said last week the group would skip that Republican standoff because it’s “not our fight.”
Part of the change may stem from a drop in contributions. Many conservative donors felt angry or disappointed over Rove’s dismal performance in the last presidential race, when Mitt Romney lost and almost none of the congressional races went Rove’s way.
The Sunlight Foundation, a campaign watchdog, suggested donors’ “return on investment” from money they gave to Rove’s groups was among the worst of 2012. In 13 congressional races that American Crossroads tried to sway, it succeeded in just two, the group found.
“There was certainly a period in 2013 when donors were trying to get over 2012,” said one GOP strategist familiar with the Crossroads groups, granted anonymity to discuss the private operations. But he said donors were beginning to return because the political climate was “driving them back.”
Rove’s lower profile comes at a time when the stakes are particularly high for Republicans. The party is poised to retain their majority in the House and try, for the third election cycle in a row, to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats. Republicans need to net six Senate seats in November to gain the majority.
Although they may not be spending as much, the Crossroads groups are marshaling their resources more strategically in key states where operatives believe they can achieve the most bang for their buck. And they are getting results.
For example, American Crossroads swooped into the GOP primary election for Senate in North Carolina during the final stretch of the campaign to hoist Thom Tillis, the GOP establishment-preferred candidate, over a Tea Party-backed alternative.
While the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $7 million since last fall on television ads railing against Obamacare and North Carolina’s vulnerable Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, American Crossroads’ smaller $1.6-million expenditure proved to be a smart investment. It helped the Tillis campaign avoid a costly GOP runoff so he could pivot immediately to the general election showdown with Hagan.