Politics & Policy

Blowback from the Grass Roots

How Steve King learned to love Karl Rove

If there is only one grassroots conservative in the country who is happy about the rollout of Karl Rove’s Conservative Victory Project, it’s Representative Steve King of Iowa.

Allies of the conservative potential Senate candidate are practically chortling about how the swings taken at King by Steven Law, president of the Conservative Victory Project, are boosting King’s prospective candidacy.

“Steve King hadn’t done anything to Karl Rove, so they fired the first shot, but I guarantee it won’t be the last,” vows Chuck Laudner, a former King adviser. The Conservative Victory Project has done “nothing but encourage Steve King, and anybody like Steve King across the country.”

Indeed, tea-partiers across the country have been galvanized by a New York Times story detailing a new effort by the Rove-run American Crossroads PAC to target purportedly unelectable GOP Senate candidates in primaries. And in an unexpected twist, Rove’s latest initiative, dubbed the Conservative Victory Project, may be spurring anti-establishment types to put their names on the ballot, instead of discouraging them.

“We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem,” Law told the New York Times.

“If Karl Rove wants to get Steve King to run, he’s doing a hell of a job,” says Ryan Rhodes, an Iowa tea-party coordinator. “It’s almost like pushing him to run.”

Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director who is now the editor of the Iowa Republican, thinks the Times piece may have had the unintended consequence of discouraging Iowa congressman Tom Latham, who is widely perceived as the candidate preferred by the state’s establishment Republicans.

“It probably did more to rally people around Steve King and to make it more difficult for guys like Tom Latham to explore a run than it did to convince Steve King not to run,” Robinson says.

It might have been more helpful for Lathem if Law had discussed targeting him. “If I were a candidate, I would not want Karl Rove’s endorsement in the primary,” Rhodes says. “It would be the kiss of death. If you want to lose an Iowa primary, all you’ve got to do is be Karl Rove’s candidate.”

“If Rove targets someone, there’s no faster way to rally the base,” Rhodes adds. “Rove could spend $100 million in the primary, but it wouldn’t matter. If he targets a candidate, you’re going to have an automatic grassroots insurgent.”

Furthermore, with Rove firmly cemented in many conservatives’ minds as an establishment figure, anything the Conservative Victory Project does could have the effect of banding grassroots voters together, even though otherwise they might split their vote among various candidates.

In Iowa, opposition to the Conservative Victory Project is “going to unite Christian conservatives and the more libertarian folks who are really anti-establishment,” says Robinson. “They might have enjoyed the thought of finding a different candidate themselves, but if the establishment is saying that Steve King is unacceptable, then those Ron Paul–type people are saying, ‘He must be good enough for us, because the establishment doesn’t want him.’”

Not all conservative are flatly opposed to the new initative; some have a wait-and-see attitude. “If this new PAC works to help elect strong conservatives to the Senate, it may prove helpful,” says freshman Texas senator Ted Cruz, who had an uphill battle against establishment favorite David Dewhurst in his primary last year. “If, instead, the objective of the Conservative Victory Project is to try to prevent conservative victories, then I believe its efforts will be both ineffective and counterproductive.”

David Adams, the campaign manager for Kentucky senator Rand Paul during his contentious primary in 2010 (which also was against an establishment favorite), worries that the Project will prove yet another establishment effort that tea-partiers will have to fight. “I’m skeptical from what I’ve heard so far,” he says, “and tend to view this as an aggressive move against the kind of candidates that I support,” he says.

Ultimately, Adams continues, no establishment group — no matter how much money it raises — can keep down tea-party candidates. “I don’t think it’ll work,” he states flatly. “It’s the establishment ideology that’s far too close to the real problem in Washington, D.C., and in government overall. You can put lipstick on a pig, even very, very expensive lipstick, and it’s still a pig. And the idea of continuing to make government bigger, spending more money that we don’t have, and taking individuals’ rights away can’t be dressed up enough to be the future of the Republican party or the country.”

Some staffers in GOP Senate offices disagree. Noting that Missouri and Indiana might have been wins for the GOP if not been for the awkward comments by Akin and Richard Mourdock, one GOP Senate aide argues that it’s possible the Conservative Victory Project will work with other conservative groups to find candidates who are both conservative and electable. Several Democratic senators will be running for reelection in 2014 in states that voted Republican in the presidential election, which suggests that Republicans have a decent chance to pick up those seats — if they have a serious candidate.

But another Senate aide points out that the establishment had losses of its own in 2012, such as Heather Wilson in New Mexico. “Who are they to decide who is unelectable and who is not?” the aide asks. “The way they are going about this seems incredibly and unnecessarily heavy-handed. And, frankly, the grassroots activists are not only concerned but will also be that much more fired up to block the handpicked Rove candidates.”

For now, anti-establishment groups and candidates are laughing all the way to the bank. King, for instance, sent out a fundraising plea Thursday. “Friend, I’m under attack and I urgently need your help to fight back,” King wrote. “Since U.S. Senator Tom Harkin announced he will not seek reelection in 2014, rumors have swirled about whether I will run for his seat. I have not made a decision on this matter, but already Karl Rove and his army have launched a crusade against me.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...


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