Midterm Vote May Define Rove's Legacy

Some strategists see the Nov. 7 vote as a referendum on Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's polarizing brand of politics.
Some strategists see the Nov. 7 vote as a referendum on Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's polarizing brand of politics. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

By many calculations, Democrats are ready to make big gains in the midterm elections, enough to take over the House and possibly the Senate. But White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten says there is one reason he is feeling upbeat amid so much Republican gloom.

"I believe Karl Rove," Bolten said in an interview in his West Wing office Friday. "Karl Rove, somewhere inside that massive brain of his, has figured out the political landscape more clearly than the entire collection of conventional-wisdom pundits and pollsters in the entire city of Washington."

That was true for two elections in a row, in 2002 and 2004, and President Bush's senior adviser has insisted to West Wing colleagues and party faithful alike that it will be again. But Rove is just eight days from having his genius designation revoked -- or upgraded to platinum status.

Even within Rove's own party, expectations are widespread that the Nov. 7 elections will mark a repudiation for the base-rallying, contrast-drawing brand of politics with which he and Bush have been so closely aligned. But it is a mark of the particular place Rove holds in the Washington psyche that even the most exuberant Democrats are wondering why he seems so confident.

There are two questions. Is Rove just acting cocky as a way of lifting GOP morale, or does he really believe it? And, if the latter, is he deluding himself, or does he once again know something that Democrats do not?

The answers have implications well beyond Rove's reputation. Midterm congressional losses for the GOP, some analysts and Republican veterans believe, could effectively end the Bush presidency two years ahead of schedule.

If the Republicans were to lose control of at least one chamber, those in the party who have long seen Rove's approach as polarizing would feel emboldened. At the same time, a new panel co-chaired by the man who exemplifies the GOP establishment, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, is preparing to chart a new course on the Iraq war -- which polls suggest is the single largest reason for the Republicans' current travails.

"The architect may find his engineering plans were faulty," said one former senior official of past GOP administrations, who has watched the current one with increasing dismay. "Turning out the base this year may not be a winning or a governing strategy. America seems to be looking forward to making things work together, rather than dividing people across the board."

Rove is dismissive of the idea that the Republicans will lose the 15 House seats or six Senate seats required to cede control to the Democrats. On Tuesday, when the White House hosted radio talk show hosts from around the country, Rove did at least 13 interviews. He was on the phone with Washington association executives with what one called "happy talk" about voter-turnout metrics, polling data and campaign funding.

"I look at the individual races as clear-eyed as I can every single day, knowing what we are doing and knowing that we have the capacity to move the resources in if we need to do more," Rove said in a brief telephone interview from the road last week. "Incumbents are hard to defeat. Our candidates by and large have significantly more resources than they have. And we have succeeded in making these races choices between two local candidates."

An object of fascination on both the left and right, Rove at age 55 counts as one of the most celebrated and notorious figures in modern presidential history. Inside the White House, he is a revered figure, known as something of a jokester who will show up at senior staff meetings bearing snacks and promising a coup if Bolten is absent. Ed Rogers, a prominent GOP lobbyist, calls him "the glue" that holds the White House together.

Rove has also acquired something close to cult status among movement conservatives: After the president, Laura Bush and Vice President Cheney, Rove is the most powerful draw on the GOP fundraising circuit. He has headlined more than 100 fundraisers this campaign cycle, raising close to $13 million for Republican candidates and causes.

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