Jacob Heilbrunn

The Demise of Karl Rove?

Karl Rove's mishap on election night, when he insisted that Ohio, contrary to all factual evidence, might end up in Mitt Romney's victory column, is apprently not being held against him at Fox News, where, unlike Sarah Palin, he was recently awarded a lucrative contract extension. But since then the burgeoning civil war in the GOP is starting to raise questions about Rove's own political viability, his status, in short, as a kingmaker inside the party. The proximate cause of the discussion is Rove's avowed aim to target candidates that he views as too extreme to compete effectively in congressional races. Rove is announcing that he will use an organization called the Conservative Victory Project to ensure that Republicans emerge—what else?—victorious in the next round of national elections.

It's an audacious promise from an operative who sunk about $300 million into the 2012 election and ended up with scant results to show for it. In the business world, Rove's performance would have earned him the heave-ho. But in the political world the former wonder boy who stage managed George W. Bush's ascent—an ascension that explains much of the GOP's current woes—is moving on to his next act, which is to try and salvage something from the mess he helped create. Can he do it?

Writing at the Huffington Post, Howard Fineman flatly declares that Rove is "done." The GOP may revive, but it won't because of Rove's efforts:

Tea Partiers rightly ask what Rove and his rich-as-Croesus American Crossroads super PAC have gotten for conservatives or even the GOP. Rove is a master tactician, but not necessarily a great judge of political horseflesh. His taste tends to run to rich guys who can pay him a lot -- which worked out well only in the case of W., and then only by skin of Justice Antonin Scalia's ("get over it") teeth.

Now come the likes of senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to challenge him: smart, angry and anti-establishment conservatives who loath the country club types and who want to remake the Republican Party in their own uncompromisingly isolationist, anti-governmental, anti-social-welfare and anti-tax image.

As Fineman sees, a battle is erupting between the establishment and Tea Party types. Fineman believes that the establishment may win in the end, harnessing the energy of the grass roots. But Rove will not be the leader of this charge. It will be younger figures in the GOP such Florida Senator Marco Rubio who, like Richard Nixon, will have to perform the act of uniting the two wings of the party.

Maybe so. But over at TalkingPointsMemo, it is possible to glean the animus that animates both wings of the GOP. This is not a fight. It is a blood feud. Here are what some of the principals are saying about each other:

“The Empire is striking back,” warned Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks.

Tea party-backed former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) told TPM he’ll start a super PAC to counter Rove’s effort, declaring, “If Rove wants a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, bring it on.”

In the Georgia Senate race, Congressman Broun vowed not to be “intimidated” by the establishment. In Iowa, Congressman King declared that “[n]obody can bully me out of running for the U.S. Senate, not even Karl Rove and his hefty war chest.”

RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote: “I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement.”

Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center slammed Rove’s group, calling it “shamelessly” named, arguing that right-wing candidates like Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Pat Toomey (PA) have won Senate seats. In response, Rove’s spokesman Jonathan Collegio called Bozell a “hater.”

The real question is whether the verbal hand grenades that these conservatives are lobbing at each other will revive or annihilate the GOP. The midterm elections will go some ways toward settling that question. If the Tea Party continues to make inroads into the GOP, then the die will be cast. The movement conservatism that began in the 1950s will continue its capture of the GOP, but the question will be whether it is actually capturing anything other than a shell of a party. This time there is no Dwight Eisenhower lurking in the wings to capture the nomination and quash the hard right.