As they try to pick up the pieces from last fall’s defeat, the establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP are at each other’s throats.
Karl Rove, fresh off the multi-million dollar disaster that was 2012, has launched a new initiative, The New York Times reported Saturday. Known as the Conservative Victory Project, the group, a spin-off of Rove's American Crossroads, will help recruit establishment Republicans, as well as defend Senate incumbents against challenges from more conservative candidates.
The aim, in a nutshell, is to push back against the Tea Party and bring the GOP’s nominating process back under the control of the party’s Washington power-brokers. In recent cycles, Tea Party-backed Senate candidates have won the Republican nomination over more moderate GOPers, only to be defeated in the general election. In several cases—think of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks—they’ve been done in thanks in part to campaign trail slip-ups that more seasoned candidates might have avoided.
But the news has triggered a full-blown revolt among conservative activists, both inside and outside Washington.
"Because of the bad results of the 2012 cycle, I kind of feel like we’re in a state of gang warfare," Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, a grassroots advocacy group aligned with the Tea Party movement, told msnbc.com, adding: "The establishment is circling the wagons, and they're trying to protect their own."
Kibbe argued that the the energy in today's GOP comes from the very Tea Party-backed candidates, like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, that Rove has opposed in the past. "What Rove is proposing is a recipe for failure," he said.
In a press release put out shortly afterwards, Kibbe warned: "The Empire is striking back."
Tea Party Patriots, perhaps the leading national grassroots Tea Party group, took the same view. “Instead of returning to conservative principles, Rove and the consultant class are pouring millions into picking off conservative leaders," national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement. "The consultant class has been on the wrong side of history and it is time for conservatives to wake-up and stop funding their sabotage of conservatism.”
Right-wing bloggers were no kinder.
Ben Shapiro, an editor at Breitbart News, accused Rove of "declaring war on the Tea Party."
Influential conservative blogger Michelle Malkin agreed. "This is war," she wrote, adding: "Who needs Obama and his Team Chicago to destroy the Tea Party when you’ve got Rove and his big government band of elites?"
Erick Erickson, the influential founder of Redstate.com and a long-time champion of the Tea Party, had a similar take. Rove’s goal, Erickson wrote, is to “crush conservatives, destroy the Tea Party, and put a bunch of squishes in Republican leadership positions.”
Erickson—who last week signed on as a Fox News contributor, the same network on which Rove appears—added: “I dare say any candidate who gets this group's support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement. They've made it really easy not to figure out who the terrible candidates will be in 2014.”
And Erickson took a swipe at Rove's famously poor return last time around. "Thank God they are behind this," Erickson wrote, referring to American Crossroads. "In 2012, they spent hundreds of millions of rich donors’ money and had jack to show for it."
Even some conservatives groups that have long been among the GOP's established power structure reacted with disdain.
“They are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, and David Dewhurst,” Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth—which supports candidates committed to low taxes and small government and has often waded into GOP primaries—told msnbc.com via email. “We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.”
And Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC launched by Jim DeMint, when he served in the Senate (though it’s no longer affiliated with him) told The Washington Post: “The Conservative Defeat Project is yet another example of the Republican establishment’s hostility toward its conservative base.”
Rep. Steve King, the extreme conservative who’s mulling a Senate run next year, figures to be one of the first targets of the Conservative Victory Project. “We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem,” Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, told the Times.
King responded: “This is a decision for Iowans to make and should not be guided by some political staffers in Washington.”