In the post-mortems of the 2012 election campaigns, it is already being written that the much-feared super PACs — those ostensibly independent, billionaire-funded outside organizations and their hundreds of millions in negative ads — turned out to be a bust.
At the center of the wreckage stands Karl Rove, the GOP strategist and supposed dark genius who for more than a decade has figured in the mythos of both parties.
With more than a little glee, Democrats and even some Republicans say the electoral defeat of so many candidates backed by his brainchild, a behemoth super PAC called American Crossroads, is proof that politics has finally passed Rove by.
It will be no surprise that Rove, not known for self-doubt, differs with that assessment.
“We did good things this year,” Rove said in an interview from California, where he had just given a speech with former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at an Association of Equipment Manufacturers convention. “But look, it’s the way of politics that you’re going to have some good years, and you’re going to have some bad years.”
As Rove sees it, the campaign proved that American Crossroads and its more secretive issue-advocacy arm, Crossroads GPS — which allows donors to remain anonymous — are here to stay.
Rove is pondering new missions for Crossroads to address weaknesses laid bare by the GOP’s back-to-back failures to win the White House and the fact that the party fell short when expected to win back the Senate.
Where until now it battled only in general elections and against Democrats, Crossroads is considering whether to start picking sides in Republican primaries. The idea would be to boost the candidate it deems most electable and avoid nominating the kind of flawed and extreme ones who cost the party what should otherwise have been easy Senate wins in Florida, Missouri and Indiana.
That, however, could put Crossroads at odds with the tea party and other groups that devote their energies to promoting the most ideologically pure contenders.
Crossroads also is likely to invest more deeply in organizations such as the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has been trying to build a more appealing GOP farm team by, among other things, recruiting Hispanic candidates to run for state-level office.
And it is raising money to run advertising shoring up the congressional Republicans during the upcoming negotiations to avert the “fiscal cliff.”
For Crossroads, 2012 was a $300 million learning experience.
“We’ve got to carefully examine, as we did after 2010, an after-action report looking at everything with fresh eyes and questioning and figuring out what worked and what didn’t work,” Rove said.
The failure of Crossroads to live up to expectations is not the only thing that has put Rove back into the news and revived the intrigue that surrounds a man whose seen and unseen hand works in so many places in politics.
In his role as an election-night pundit on Fox News, Rove got into a much-talked-about, on-air argument with the network when it decided to call Ohio for President Obama.
He also created a stir two days later, when he accused Obama’s campaign of “suppressing the vote,” using language that Democrats apply to measures such as voter ID laws that make it more cumbersome for people to cast ballots. Rove said he was referring to the denigration of Mitt Romney that made him less palatable to voters looking for an alternative to Obama.
Rove’s is the most famous name associated with Crossroads, but he said he receives no money from it, not even travel expenses, for his work as a strategist and fundraiser. Its day-to-day operations are run by its president, Steven Law.
Outside their circle, many of the performance reviews have been scathing.
The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics, calculated that only 6 percent of Crossroads money went to winners; by comparison, the Service Employees International Union, an old war horse of Democratic politics, had a 70 percent victory rate.
Celebrity real estate developer Donald Trump taunted on Twitter: “Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle. Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.”
And Obama strategists David Axelrod said: “If I were one of those billionaires funding Crossroads and other organizations, I’d be wanting to talk to someone and asking where my refund is, because they didn’t get much for their money.”
However, Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, insisted Crossroads and the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future “had a very positive impact on leveling the playing field in key target states.”
“Obama for America had a strategy to put Gov. Romney and his campaign away early,” Rhoades wrote in an e-mail. “In looking back, it might have worked if these organizations hadn’t countered them in the spring and summer.”
Others in the Romney campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity, were bitter that the super PACs didn’t do more to defend the Republican nominee and his business record, particularly in the late summer, when the campaign had run through its own primary-season funding.
“We didn’t have any air cover,” lamented one senior adviser.
That, Rove suggested, was the result of a missed signal.
The law forbids super PACs from coordinating with candidates, so it sets up an interaction that Rove compares to playing bridge, a game in which players make their moves based on cues from their partners.
“We can’t talk to the campaigns,” he said. “But we’ve got to understand what the candidate’s message is by closely following their public statements and campaign activities, do a lot of research to understand what the weaknesses of their opponents are, and read the tea leaves.”
In July, after Obama and his allies began pounding Romney’s record at the private equity firm Bain Capital, Crossroads spent $9.3 million on ads in nine states, in which a female narrator asked: “What happened to Barack Obama? The press and even Democrats say his attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record are misleading, unfair and untrue.”
The response from the Romney campaign? Radio silence, which the Crossroads team read to mean the strategists in Boston did not believe engaging on that issue was important. So Crossroads quit running the spots.
Another lapse, in the view of some, was Crossroads’s failure to air positive ads that would acquaint voters with Romney’s biography and his achievements.
“They ran basically the same ad over and over. They were working from a theory of the case that turned out to be extraordinarily flawed,” said Obama adviser Anita Dunn. “Their theory was that making it a referendum on Obama’s stewardship of the economy was all they had to do.”
Rove’s reputation for seeing the Next Big Thing in politics goes back to the late 1970s, when he arrived in Texas to set up a direct-mail operation. At the time, Republicans held only one statewide elected office; when he left in 2001, Republicans were in all 29 of them — and most of those officials had at one time or another been Rove’s clients.
When Rove started touting the prospects of George W. Bush in the late 1980s, the future governor and president was a failed oilman with little more than his famous last name going for him. Rove sold his business and moved to Washington with Bush, becoming so instrumental in his 2004 reelection that the president memorably dubbed him “the architect.”
The idea for Crossroads was born shortly after the 2008 election, when Rove wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that the Republicans had no equivalent to the alliance of organized labor and liberal interest groups that had spent $194 million on independent advertising for Democrats during the previous two years.
The next day, Rove recalled, he heard from former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie, who said, “Great idea. What are we going to do about it?”
As they talked to potential donors, Rove said, they realized “there was just a generalized sense that too much of this kind of activity was basically of, by and for the consultants. Donors said, ‘Consultants set these things up, pay a commission to fundraisers, hire themselves to do the work and pay themselves too much.’ ”
“Major donors said, ‘We write checks to these groups, but we’re not enthusiastic, given how they are going about their business,’ ” Rove said.
He and Gillespie also began sounding out the Senate Republican leadership, which recommended Law, a former aide to Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to run it. The two talked him into the job, though it meant that Law had to leave a far more lucrative post as general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In January 2010, the Supreme Court lifted the restrictions on political contributions by corporations and unions, a move that campaign finance experts say also spawned the growth of super PACs, by giving a green light to big contributions from individuals. Rove insists that Crossroads could and would have happened even without that decision.
In April, Rove and Gillespie invited representatives of 18 conservative groups to a lunch of chicken pot pie at Rove’s Weaver Terrace home and unveiled their idea for a coordinated effort.
“You could tell there was a lot of skepticism,” Rove recalled. “It was palpable.”
That was until they met again the following month and, at Law’s suggestion, passed around their $45 million budget. They explained which Senate races they wanted to become involved in, their polling budget and the amount of advertising they could buy.
“It was, like, jaw dropping. You could just sort of see people saying, ‘What is going on?’ But it helped set in motion a wonderful collegial process,” Rove said.
In the 2010 midterm election, “we were able to make sure we weren’t running ads on top of each other. We were coordinating on message. We arrived at an agreed-upon list of congressional races in priority order,” he recalled.
They tried running a get-out-the-vote operation in Las Vegas that year, Rove said, but discovered they couldn’t do it as economically or efficiently as a political party could.
Rove boasts that Crossroads remains an efficient operation.
He noted it has a relatively small staff of 19 and said it pays its ad makers only 3 percent of the amount spent, the bottom in an industry where 10 and 15 percent fees used to be common. Ninety-five cents out of every dollar that Crossroads spends “goes onto the target,” he said.
And his wealthy donors? “They all went into this eyes wide open,” Rove said, “and their attitude is, beat them next time.”
Alice Crites and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.