The Republican establishment strikes back. But will it work?

February 4, 2013

After watching five entirely winnable Senate races be lost thanks to poor GOP nominees over the last two cycles, the Republican establishment -- in the form of some of its largest donors and its most high profile political strategist -- is getting off the sidelines in hopes of ensuring unelectable candidates stop winning primaries.

But, will it work? Maybe.


Former Bush White House chief strategist Karl Rove

The "Conservative Victory Fund", as the group is known, has a few things going for it. It's being run by Steve Law, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director and the man who oversaw American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS in the 2012 election, and the money is being raised by Karl Rove, the former chief strategist in the Bush White House.

No matter what you think of Law and Rove -- and there is lots of opinion all over the map on that latter name -- it's impossible to dispute their ability to raise money and run a serious political venture. (Yes, we know Crossroads didn't win the White House for Mitt Romney. But the group did raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for ads in swing states.)

And, they will almost certainly be able to do so for the Conservative Victory Fund, which, as a super PAC, can accept unlimited checks from individuals but must disclose the identities of its donors. (The need for public disclosure of the names of its givers may make a dent in Conservative Victory Fund fundraising but it won't be a major one.)

That money, according to the New York Times' indispensable Jeff Zeleny, who broke the story, will be used to vet candidates to ensure that the party establishment is getting behind the the right person who can win. It will also be spent -- heavily -- on television ads in contested primaries where one candidate can win and, at least by the judgment of Law and Rove, the other(s) can't.

But, there are clear limitations to what the Conservative Victory Fund can do, limitations that raise questions about just how effective it can and will be.

The biggest problem for the new group is that money isn't everything in primary races.  While there's NO question that you would rather be the candidate with more money to spend (or more money being spent on your behalf) than the one (or ones) who are underfunded, money is at its least impactful in primaries.

Why? Because, in most states, primary turnout is decidedly low and dominated by the activist bases of each party -- people who tend to be somewhat immune to the TV ad wars.

Take the Missouri Senate primary in 2012, for example. A total of just over 600,000 votes were cast, with Todd Akin winning with 36 percent or 217,240 votes. Akin's vote total in the primary was a fraction -- 8 percent to be specific -- of the more than 2.7 million votes cast in the general election, which he lost.

It's hard to imagine how the Conservative Victory Fund could have made a difference in that primary. Akin was outspent by both of his primary opponents. He won largely because his social conservative base turned out and, in an three-way race, winning roughly a third of the small number of votes cast was enough to emerge as the nominee.

Ditto Delaware in 2010 when Christine O'Donnell knocked off Rep. Mike Castle in a Republican Senate primary. O'Donnell had no money. Castle had millions -- including several weeks of heavy spending on negative ads from the NRSC against O'Donnell.  O'Donnell won with 53 percent, despite winning less than 30,000 total votes.

Now, it's possible that a more sustained ad attack against a candidate like Akin or O'Donnell in the primary could pay dividends. It's also possible that the Conservative Victory Fund could use their money to expand the electorate beyond traditional base activists, thereby giving their preferred candidates a chance to win. But, neither is a guarantee.

The other major problem that the Conservative Victory Fund will face is that there are now all sorts of fundraising streams for off-the-beaten path candidates that weren't available to them in the even very recent past. Groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was started by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, have demonstrated an ability to channel large sums of money to their preferred candidates and have also shown a willingness to spend their own money to try and elect these more conservative types.

Not surprisingly, these conservative groups took significant umbrage at what the Law/Rove group is attempting to do.

"The Conservative Defeat Project is yet another example of the Republican establishment's hostility toward its conservative base," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, in a statement. "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. If they keep this up, the Republican Party will remain in the wilderness for decades to come."

It's a near-certainty that those ideologically-driven big givers who were already donating to the Club or SCF will re-double their donations as Hoskins and others attempt to frame this as a battle for the direction of the party going forward.

To be clear, if you are a Republican candidate trying to stave off a primary challenge from your ideological right, the Conservative Victory Fund is a godsend. But, it would be a mistake to assume the new group is a panacea for what has ailed establishment Republicans in Senate campaigns in recent years. The problem goes deeper than that and won't be solved by money alone.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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