A decade ago, Karl Rove was President George W. Bush's right-hand man and one of the most powerful political figures in America. And even after his fortunes briefly dipped at the end of the Bush era, Rove roared to life again, tapping into and fueling the Tea Party movement through his massive super PAC, American Crossroads.
But today, with a GOP civil war raging between establishment types and upstart conservatives in the mold of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), Rove's once-strong influence has begun to wane. An embodiment of the Bush-era Republicans who have fallen out of favor of late, Rove, too, has begun to come under fire from the populist right.
In the latest sign of Rove's diminished standing, a dozen super PACs are challenging his American Crossroads in the GOP money game, and aiming to promote their own preferred candidates in races across the country, according to the New York Times.
"Certainly I think there's a level of frustration with the state of things in D.C.," Randy Cubriel, a Texas lobbyist, told the Times. See if you can read between the lines here: "I think a group like ours, coming from the state, is probably a little more effective than some of the national groups."
Crossroads was widely criticized for not producing more victories in 2012 despite spending some $300 million. The group had dismal 16.7 percent success rate in the last election, according to OpenSecrets.
And then there's this bizarre embodiment of Rove's slipping grasp: While providing live election night analysis for Fox News, he refused to concede that Ohio had gone for Obama and that, as a result, Romney had lost the race.
Rove's Crossroads spent nearly $100 million just to defeat Obama. That effort failed.
"He has lost his mojo," a GOP strategist subsequently told the Washington Post of Rove. "He has become total spin, including spinning himself."
Then at the start of the new year, Rove quickly found himself on the wrong side of the Tea Party.
In February, Rove launched the Conservative Victory Project, a group whose explicit goal was finding and aiding the most electable conservatives, while keeping fringe candidates from blowing winnable general elections. It was a direct response to the epic flameouts of candidates like Todd Akin — of "legitimate rape" infamy — who almost certainly cost the party several crucial seats in Congress.
Rove said the group would ensure GOP money wasn't wasted on unelectable candidates. But conservatives, furious and feeling marginalized, pushed back, and hard. Rove, they felt, had exposed himself as exactly the kind of establishment Republican they opposed: An opportunist eager to get their votes without truly caring about their grassroots goals.
"I dare say any candidate who gets this group's support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement," wrote Red State's Erick Erickson.
Conservative radio personality Mark Levin challenged Rove to "bring it on," while activist and ForAmerica chairman Brent Bozell accused Rove of waging "gang warfare" on the Tea Party. In a March letter to Crossroads donors, co-signed by other Tea Party groups, Bozell wrote that Rove should "stop blaming conservatives for his disastrous results," and that he should "stop posturing himself as a conservative: His record supporting wasteful government spending and moderate candidates over conservatives spans decades."
So began the great conservative money war of 2013.
Rove pushed back against his critics on the right, but Crossroads nevertheless went largely dormant for the remainder of the year, in part because of an unexpected dearth of funds. Through the first half of 2011, Crossroads raised almost $4 million; through the same period in 2013, it raised just $1.86 million.
Meanwhile, other groups on the right have been spending big and making noise. Most notably, organizations like the Senate Conservatives Fund have picked fights with lawmakers, including party leaders, who have committed such mild offenses as voting for cloture on a bill to end the government shutdown.
Crossroads, along with Rove's other ventures, will assuredly pour money into next year's races. But this time, unlike years past, they'll have plenty of competition from within their own party.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Fall movie guide: All the films you should see in September
- Scottish independence is another financial crisis waiting to happen
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- 10 things you need to know today: September 1, 2014
- The elusive 'It factor' in presidential politics
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- The 10 best networking tips for people who hate networking
- The next pandemic
Subscribe to the Week