Steven J. Law, the president of the super PAC American Crossroads, is the man behind the Conservative Victory Project, a new effort aimed at supporting conservative candidates whom it deems capable of winning general elections — and opposing those it deems incapable of that task. Law told the New York Times on Sunday,“We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent-protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”
Law spoke to National Review Online’s Jim Geraghty Wednesday afternoon.
Jim Geraghty: You guys have stirred up quite a reaction since the New York Times article Sunday. So, think of this as a second shot: What do you want to tell the conservative grass roots about the Conservative Victory Project, and is there anything that’s gotten misconstrued since that piece appeared?
Steven Law: I actually didn’t think the New York Times piece was that far off. I think it ended up being misinterpreted following the initial reporting.
We start from a premise that almost anybody can agree with: that 2012 was a really tough year for Republicans, for conservatives, and from my perspective, for the country. It’s the sort of election we don’t want to see repeated again. And we’re engaged in some very serious critical analysis of what went wrong and what can be improved upon, and that starts with us. We’re reevaluating how we run ads, how we use research, all those sorts of things. As a result, we’ll do some things much better in the next cycle.
But in addition to that, one of the things we encountered was candidates on our side who just weren’t competitive for a variety of reasons.
Looking back at our investments last cycle — and looking back to 2010, where I think there were some weaknesses masked by what was otherwise a very strong year, we saw that we faced a problem of candidate quality that we think we need to address. A lot of the focus has been on candidates who were much more conservative than others, but only because some of them self-destructed so spectacularly — and I’m thinking in particular of Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — but there were plenty of weaknesses from candidates across the spectrum, including those who might be thought of as establishment candidates.
Republican candidates for Senate were outraised by their Democratic counterparts by $60 million. Fundraising is not the only measure of competitiveness, but we were also way behind the other side in terms of preparation and candidate execution.
Our goal is twofold: to significantly increase the quality of candidates, and, as part of that, to find and support the most conservative candidate who can win — as we put it, institutionalizing the Buckley rule.
Over the last two cycles, we’ve invested over $30 million trying to elect very conservative and tea-party-backed candidates to the Senate. When you add in the House, it gets closer to about $50 million, which makes us one of the biggest investors in very conservative and tea-party candidates. We’re the kind of people who put our money where our mouth is.
We’ve been proud supporters of people like Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, and Rand Paul. We were actually very active in Missouri and Indiana this time. But we want to find more people like Rubio and Paul and Toomey, and avoid situations where candidates implode or can’t put together viable campaigns — and again, that’s regardless of where they are on the political spectrum. We’ve found problems all across the spectrum.
We want to introduce very careful vetting of candidates and wherever possible try to find consensus among groups on the right , so that if it’s possible, we avoid damaging primaries.
Geraghty: How will you be vetting candidates?
Law: We’re going to be looking at positions they’ve taken, things they’ve said. We’re going to be looking at fundraising ability. We’re going to be looking at their ability to put together a broad-based campaign, particularly if we’re trying to dislodge a sitting incumbent.
One of the things that has concerned us is that our candidates have lagged significantly behind in being able to support their own campaigns financially.
Geraghty: When I hear you say “vetting,” another phrase that comes to mind is “skeletons in the closet” — things that could very seriously impede a bid for office that an individual thinks will never come to light, that end up coming to light, whether it’s financial or personal behavior. Will you be looking into this, or am I getting the wrong impression?
Law: No, I think that’s true — we want to look into any issues, personal or political, that could significantly diminish an individual’s ability to be competitive in a general election.
I’ll give you a good example. In politics it’s often tough to grasp the obvious. In the Nebraska Senate primary of 2012, the establishment choice and frontrunner Jon Bruning was reported to have very significant ethics questions hanging over how he made his money. There was a very substantial exposé in the Omaha World-Herald. American Crossroads wasn’t involved in primaries at the time, but there was an effort on the part of Repulicans to essentially ignore that and ignore how that could have weakened him in a general election. To the credit of the Club for Growth, they acknowledged that this was a serious issue, that even though he was acceptable in his policy views, he was almost certainly too flawed to be a general-election candidate. Now, the Club for Growth ended up endorsing Don Stenberg, and I think Stenberg was a weak alternative.
But I think evaluating these candidates carefully in terms of their whole package is going to be a very important part of the exercise. Not only will we be conducting this, but we hope others will participate as well.
Geraghty: How do you determine when to oppose someone? How will you know when you’ve found a significantly flawed time bomb of a candidate?
Law: It will require research into the candidates, but also public-opinion research. It will vary on the basis of what the alternatives are, too. Campaigns or primaries where you have at least two equally viable candidates, even if they’re somewhat different ideologically, aren’t ones where we’d support one candidate over another.
I’m thinking of races like the 2012 Texas primary between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst. Cruz was undeniably the stronger conservative, but either candidate would have been competitive in the general election. Those aren’t the kind of fights we’re interested in being involved in. We want to be in situations where there is someone with significant flaws who may not be competitive and who is not the best possible candidate. And in some cases, we may try to recruit someone who may be stronger and who would be competitive.
Geraghty: I noticed the only candidate mentioned much in the New York Times article was Iowa Republican congressman Steve King, who’s being discussed as a potential Senate candidate.
Law: What I commented on, in regards to the Senate race in Iowa, was only to raise the example of past statements and how they can potentially be a liability for someone. We haven’t ruled anybody in or out for the Iowa Senate race, and we haven’t even determined if we would be involved in that primary.
In fact, we supported Steve King in his last campaign; we spent $400,000 in that race just last year. My point in raising that was simply to say, as an example, that if you’re opining on different issues and saying things inartfully — everybody does that, I certainly do that myself — it is part of the permanent record that we have to evaluate and assess.
Are there things on the public record that are very hard to undo? Does the presence of those things suggest a larger problem that could erupt later on? I don’t have a view on that about Representative King — he ran a good reelection contest, he was very disciplined and on-message throughout that process.
But other candidates, such as Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, and Ken Buck, manifested a habit of saying very impolitic things long before they ended up popping off with something that immediately ended their campaign. Just as you would look at someone’s past votes, you have to look at their past public statements for any things that would be very difficult to explain. You have to look for a pattern that would show real message discipline, or an inability to deal with things that would almost certainly become a problem late in the campaign.
But what I said wasn’t meant as a conclusive statement about Representative King or that Senate campaign.
Geraghty: In setting up the Conservative Victory Project, have you talked with Mitch McConnell or anyone at the National Republican Senatorial Committee?
Law: No I haven’t .
Geraghty: Do you have any sense of whether they see this as a good idea or a bad idea?
Law: There’s fairly widespread concern about candidate quality. It’s a really important issue. There’s a general feeling that candidates who were nominated in Indiana and Missouri this time basically lost races that should have been won. There’s also a feeling that candidates who were nominated in Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada in 2010 also blew opportunities for us. Those are a little bit more debatable, but nevertheless, there’s a concern those candidates didn’t perform well.
That’s part of the backdrop, and that’s part of the reason people who are more conservative are sensitive to the fact that only they are being singled out. What they say, and I think they’re right, is that in addition to those candidates that self-destructed more spectacularly, there was also a failure to perform among some establishment candidates, leading to our view that we need to improve this on all sides.
Geraghty: In some of the examples you’ve cited, the, shall we say, quirkiness was visible from Day One. But in the case of Mourdock, he had already been elected statewide as secretary of state, and was not seen as some nut job who was going to blurt out controversial statements. How do you know if someone is going to be prone to making a fatal gaffe, before he says it? Doesn’t the mission you guys are setting out to do require a certain amount of clairvoyance?
Law: (Laughter) That’s our secret weapon! No, it is hard. We hope that by having another voice at the table, and by dealing with folks with a number of different perspectives, we can analyze these things better and have a clearer sense of who might be a strong candidate and who might not be.
On Mourdock: I know he said before the primary, “I like being in politics because it lets me inflict my opinion on other people.” I know there were at least a couple of instances of similar statements.
But you’re right, Mourdock is a bit of a hard case. He was strongly conservative and had a successful record.
Geraghty: Don’t GOP-primary voters have the right to pick their own candidates?
Law: Absolutely, and they do. There are lots of groups who are involved already trying to influence that choice. Some of those whom we hope to work with are based in Washington and do it very aggressively. They have every bit as much right to be involved and to help primary voters make the right choice as we do.
Geraghty: I remember sitting down with you guys last cycle and discussing what you were seeing in focus groups and so on. Do the 2012 results raise questions about the effectiveness of TV advertising? Could it be that ads that seem to be effective when put before a focus group — when you have their attention — end up not having much impact when they’re surrounded by the noise of all the other political ads during every commercial break?
Law: I think there’s something to that. I think that there was an over-reliance — not just by us, but by others as well — on research that may have trumped judgment and experience. Not to a massive degree, but somewhat. I continue to believe that television is tremendously important when your goal is to persuade people. There is no stronger tool, and clearly the Obama campaign believed that, because they spent massively on TV all the way through Election Day.
But that is certainly one of the things that we aim to do better. Everything from the foundational issue research to opinion research to the application of that in how we communicate things on television — all of that needs to be stronger in 2014.
Geraghty: How has your donor base from 2012 reacted to this discussion? Had any of your donors been nudging you to go in this direction?
Law: I would say there’s mostly been enthusiasm. We talked about it a bit after the election. The Akin and Murdoch races were kind of a galvanizing moment for a lot of people. And I don’t want to single them out, because again, the problems we had with candidates are broader than that. But what they said was not just statewide but national and had a huge impact on the party as a whole. For some of our supporters, it symbolized the problems we had in selecting good candidates.
All we really aim to do here is see if we can contribute to selecting high-quality candidates — those who are conservatives and who also possess the necessary skills to be effective in a general election. Our donors warmed to that.
One of the concerns we have had is that, in some cases, groups have helped get somebody nominated in a primary and then they walked away in the general election. That happened, for example, in Nevada and Colorado in 2010, where we essentially shouldered most of the financial burden of supporting those candidates when the groups that had supported them had left the playing field. They left us with candidates who just didn’t have the skills necessary to be competitive.
Our donors understand that ultimately candidates are the ones who have to close the sale.
Geraghty: In West Virginia, Representative Shelley Moore Capito is interested in running in the open-seat Senate race, and the Club for Growth has already indicated that they find her unacceptable. Do you foresee getting involved in a primary there?
Law: I think it’s a little early to say. I do think Capito is a candidate who has proven she can win with West Virginia voters. It’s a state that is strongly available to us. It reminds me a bit of Kentucky, in that it is conservative, but not as conservative as some Southern states. You need a very skilled, capable, and experienced candidate to win there. I think it’s premature to say, but Shelley Moore Capito certainly has a lot of strengths.
Geraghty: There’s an open-seat race in Georgia, in a state that’s been pretty friendly to Republicans. There’s talk that Senator Frank Lautenberg won’t run in New Jersey. Are there people on your list who you want to recruit right now? Any state lawmakers we haven’t heard of who you see as having great potential?
Law: Not yet. Our first priorities are going to be open seats and those six seats held by Senate Democrats in states that Romney won by 10 percent or more. Our plan is to look at who is being talked about as a potential nominee and do an initial assessment of who might be competitive. Then we will have conversations with other groups that are interested in selecting candidates, specifically groups that are very conservative, and see if there is potential for consensus. If there isn’t consensus, we’ll see if there is somebody else out there we can find.
Geraghty: You’ve been a much-discussed figure since Sunday. Do you feel like any of the reactions or denunciations have been over the top or unfair, or has anyone particularly misconstrued what you’re doing?
Law: If people look at our track record of where we’ve invested our money and who we’ve supported, I think they’ll see our hearts are in the right place. I do think conservatives are justifiably sensitive that their candidates are the only ones who are singled out for underperforming, and there’s some merit to that view. But we’ve been pretty straightforward about our view that, even though we are very concerned about candidates who spectacularly self-destruct, we’re also concerned about the candidates who don’t seem to be able to amass the support, resources, and energy to run an effective general-election campaign.
—Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.