WASHINGTON (CNN) — Some Republicans see Karl Rove as a political genius, masterminding winning campaigns at every level on the ballot, including the White House. Others call him a “fake conservative” and a symbol of what’s wrong with the party.
A Rove-affiliated super PAC’s efforts to push what it believes will be more electable congressional candidates — and the backlash it has created — is symbolic of the battle for the soul of the GOP.
The uproar is in response to American Crossroads forming a new super PAC called the Conservative Victory Project, which says its aim is to improve the GOP’s record in congressional races.
The group wants to institutionalize the rule of the late conservative activist William F. Buckley and to nominate “the most conservative candidate in the primary who can win the general election,” according to Victory Project spokesman Jonathan Collegio.
“Our party has lost at least six Senate races in the last two election cycles not because of conservative ideas but because of undisciplined candidates and subpar campaigns,” Collegio told CNN.
“We want to elect conservative candidates to the House and Senate,” he added. “But we have to win general elections.”
As he does with other Crossroads groups, former George W. Bush strategist Rove will advise this new organization, which will be led by Steven Law, the president of both American Crossroads and its advocacy sister Crossroads GPS.
But some in the tea party wing of the party say the group’s aim is to elect more moderate Republicans. One tea party group declared in an email solicitation: “Karl Rove has declared war” on the movement…”Our response. BRING IT!”
Some conservative activists think the Conservative Victory Project organizers really aim to elect more establishment candidates who are not conservative enough — a charge the group’s leaders vehemently deny.
On Tuesday conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham criticized the Victory Project’s Law, who was a guest on her show, for specifically highlighting losses by tea party candidates last year.
Law said his groups have backed tea party candidates as well as establishment ones and that the Victory Project’s aim is not to go after one group but to field the most competitive candidates possible.
There was widespread dismay from some within the party after losses in the general election by such Senate candidates as Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010 and Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana last year.
All three were initially favored and strongly supported by tea party activists. They won primaries against candidates who experts thought had a better chance of capturing the general election. Their losses were at least partly blamed on comments they made that seemed out of the mainstream.
While Law told Ingraham “we are interested in improving the process,” conservative activists believe the organizers will harm the party instead.
“These fake conservatives need to go away before they do more damage,” is how ForAmerica Chairman Brent Bozell put it.
Another activist derided the group as ensuring defeat for the party.
“The Conservative Defeat Project is yet another example of the Republican establishment’s hostility towards its conservative base,” Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund group, said in a statement on Sunday. “Rather than listening to the grassroots and working to advance their principles, the establishment has chosen to declare war on its party’s most loyal supporters.”
SCF, which works to push conservative candidates, backed Ted Cruz, Deb Fischer and Jeff Flake in their successful Senate races last year.
Besides its aversion to the Victory Project’s intent, Rove’s involvement is also an issue.
“TPPatriots want to save USA. Karl Rove wants to line pockets-Don’t Tread on Us! Tea Party bites back-never gives up!” Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin tweeted over the weekend.
The Crossroads groups themselves didn’t fare a lot better than the tea party groups in 2012, as most of their favored Senate candidates ended up losing — and Rove got some of the blame.
Some conservatives point out that along with Akin and Mourdock, many mainstream candidates lost, too, like Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota and former Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico.
Victory Project organizers have started reaching out to their financial backers, some of whom were uneasy about getting in the middle of an intra-party fights. That’s why they formed separately.
“Some donors are concerned about primaries where many are concerned exclusively about the general election,” Collegio said.
The group will make its decisions on whom to back based on research about candidates’ positions, their fundraising power and their ability to organize and run an effective campaign.
It will not recruit candidates nor coordinate with party leaders. It will disclose its donors.
One race it could get involved is in West Virginia, where Rep. Shelley Moore Capito had already announced her decision to run for the Senate even before incumbent Sen. Jay Rockefeller announced that he was going to retire.
Capito, who is in her seventh term, is viewed as a formidable candidate with a strong fundraising base.
However, several conservative groups, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, already have come out against her, calling her record “liberal” and saying she supported too much government spending.