Whither Karl Rove?

November 8, 2012

Eight years ago, Karl Rove was on the top of the political world. He had guided George W. Bush to a reelection victory while congressional Republicans picked up four Senate seats and solidified their House majority.

His dream of a permanent, or at least durable Republican majority in the country seemed at hand.  He was the unquestioned top dog in the Republican strategist world and even Democrats who loathed him acknowledged that he was devastatingly effective.

Times change.

Eight years hence, Rove is at the center of a mini-controversy over his insistence that his employer -- Fox News Channel -- had mistakenly called Ohio for President Obama and, in so doing, had handed the race to the incumbent. If you missed the clip, it's here:

But, that odd moment aside, there is also a broader conversation happening within the Republican party about Rove and whether his time as the unquestioned smartest guy in the GOP has come to an end.

"He has lost his mojo," said one longtime and well connected Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly about Rove. "He has become total spin, including spinning himself." 

While Rove himself passed on the chance to discuss his role in the 2012 election and in the GOP more generally with the Fix, several other prominent Republican operatives leapt to his defense.

"Karl played a giant role in the 2012 election and did so for the right reasons," said Terry Nelson, a Republican media consultant and former campaign manager for John McCain's presidential bid in 2008. "I hope he continues to be a leader in our party in the future."

Much of the debate about Rove centers on his role as the most prominent face and lead fundraiser for American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS -- the dual-headed conservative group that raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads in the presidential and congressional races this cycle.

"Crossroads was a failure and Rove's core strategy of base-centric GOP politics is a failure," said a senior Republican consultant not favorably inclined to Rove. "There are not enough white men for the Rove view to work anymore.  His time is past."

Rove's great genius in 2004 was to focus not on reaching out to swing voters as conventional political wisdom dictated but rather to concentrate on identifying, growing and turning out the Republican base. And that meant whites, and white men in particular.

The problem for Rove and Republicans is that in 2012, the math simply didn't add up. Mitt Romney won white voters by 20 points but whites made up just 72 percent of the overall electorate, their lowest percentage ever. (By comparison, 87 percent of the electorate was white in 1992.)

Rove, in his Wall Street Journal column on Wednesday, acknowledged his party's demographic problem. He wrote: "A bright spot for the president (and a warning sign for the GOP) is that his share of the Latino vote rose four points, to 71%. A larger Hispanic turnout brought him an additional 700,000 votes from that group."

And, in Rove's defense, Bush got 43 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 -- by far the high water mark for a GOP presidential candidate in modern presidential memory.  Bush also wound up carrying New Mexico and Nevada, two states with large Latino populations, thanks to a concerted effort to court that community, according to a source knowledgeable with the efforts.

While the demographic realities exposed in the 2012 campaign are hard to dispute, there is far less certainty about whether what Rove did with Crossroads was a good, bad or neutral thing in the race.

"Until there is someone who can supplant [Rove] with the relationships with the millionaires/billionaires, he's got a role," said a pro-Rove Republican operative. "He's the preeminent personality in the party right now, and the donors (at least most of them) believe the super PACs played a vital role in keeping this close and making it not as bad as it could have been."

Crossroads defenders note that Obama outspent Romney on television by $154 million and was it not for Rove's group -- and other conservative-aligned super PACs -- that such a margin would have kept Romney from even coming close to winning in swing states like Florida or Ohio.

The source added that the spending by Crossroads in downballot contests made up for the fact that many prominent Senate GOP candidates were  badly outraised by their Democratic rivals and noted that without Rove -- and Crossroads -- those races would not have been as close as they were. 

Still, the fact that Republicans not only lost the presidential race but also failed to pick up seats in the Senate has led to some grumbling among some of the major donors in the GOP world, said one senior strategist. "Big givers wondering where the money went and why Karl was so mistaken," said the source.

Even when he was on top of the Republican political world, Rove was a divisive figure -- he is an acerbic personality who doesn't suffer fools gladly -- so it's not terribly surprising that in the wake of an across-the-board defeat for the GOP there are those questioning Rove's role and future.

For all the criticism of Rove, it's hard to imagine him disappearing from the political world any time soon. With Republicans likely headed into a period of deep self-examination between now and the 2016 election, Rove is nearly certain to remain a leading voice in that conversation -- if for no other reason than his role as a commentator on Fox News Channel and his relationships with the mega-donors that every candidate covets.

In short: Karl Rove isn't going anywhere.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | November 8, 2012