Is the Cult of Karl Over?

The GOP’s master of spin might have spun his last web with an election-night rant on Fox News. Now, even Rove’s allies say it’s time he called it quits, reports David Freedlander.

David Goldman / AP Photo

In the days leading up to November 6, Fox News colleagues of Karl Rove would routinely ask him—off camera—if he really, truly believed Mitt Romney would win the presidency. They wanted to know if Rove actually thought Romney would win 285 electoral votes and eke out a popular-vote victory, or whether the master of spin was merely spinning—spinning on behalf of a campaign he had raised so many millions to help win.

But no, Rove insisted, no matter how many times he was asked: No spin. Romney is going to win.

Rove apparently continued to believe his own story until the actual story was over, when his own network called Ohio and thus the election, for President Obama. The moment was vintage Rove—questioning the accepted wisdom, poring over numbers, and asserting he had top officials in the Romney campaign on the other line.

Now that his powers of prediction have proved to be as misguided as his political acumen, some longtime Republicans are saying that the age of Rove might finally be over.

“It’s like you take a top general from World War I and put him in the middle of World War II,” said one top Republican strategist. “He might have been a brilliant World War I general, but watching the two campaigns and their affiliated super PACs, it’s like they were playing with a different level of technology and we were playing like it’s 2004.”

American Crossroads, the Rove-affiliated super PAC, had been billed as sort of shadow Republican Party, one that could operate outside the messy party structure and avoid its inevitable internecine fights. But instead, despite having raised $300 million this cycle, not only was American Crossroads unable to rescue Romney, but every single Senate candidate it got behind went down to defeat as well.

“The donor community is not just annoyed, they are really really pissed off,” said one Romney aide with close ties to the Republican Party’s big-money people in New York. Most of the money Rove pried from these donors, this strategist said, went so that Crossroads could produce television ads slamming Barack Obama, instead of into the kind of get-out-the-vote effort that the Democrats focused on.

“So much of Karl’s problem, and the problem with the other super PACs, is that they were all media,” said Ed Rollins, who helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s landslide in 1984. “It’s easy to go and ask donors for a big donation when you show them a pretty commercial, rather than say I am going to organize these precincts and show them a bunch of voter rolls. There is no question we need to build infrastructure.”

Worse, Republicans say, is that super PACs that did try to invest in the ground game found that Rove had already vacuumed up the top donors, who now had nothing left to contribute.

“There was this idea that if you give a really smart guy all of the money he wants, you will win,” said Susan Del Percio, a GOP strategist. “That’s a big part, but it’s not the only part. People have invested more than they ever have before. They were people who gave his super PAC $10 million, and what do they have to show for it?”

Democrats, meanwhile, have been downright gleeful. In a post-election conference call with reporters, David Axelrod joked that if he were one the billionaires who was keeping Rove’s operation afloat, “I would ask for a refund.”

“I would think there will be reluctance in the future, when Mr. Rove and others come knocking on the door, because of what happened on Tuesday,” he added.

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Rollins agreed that Rove may have a hard time prying open rich Republican wallets in the future.

“Whether or not they want to give him money in the future, that is up to them,” he said. “I wouldn’t be happy if I put up a couple of million dollars and got nothing either.”

Donald Trump weighed in with a tweet that summed it up for some: “Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle. Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.”

Part of the problem, politicos say, is Rove charting an untrammeled path for a political consultant. Having reached the mountaintop of getting your guy into the White House—George W. Bush—and then back for a reelection despite the odds, most political strategists would take a step back, settling into an easy life of cable-news punditry and memoir writing. Rove, however, has jumped into this year’s campaign with the relish of a junior staffer trying to make a name for himself. There are two problems with this, say insiders: one, the political world moves so fast that it is hard for an established star to adapt, and two, you run the danger of becoming bigger than the politician for whom you are working. That Rove is getting more heat than Romney for Romney’s loss is, in some way, proof of the dangers of hanging around too long.

“Most people would leave the stage after they have done what he has done,” said one longtime colleague of Rove’s. “But he can’t. He always has to prove to people that he is the smartest guy in the room, and he can’t just walk away.”

Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads, said one election cycle won’t damage Rove. “Karl is one of the great political campaign minds of the last 100 years. By any account there are going to be winning election cycles and losing election cycles, and he has more than proven his acumen to the Republican Party and conservative causes,” he said.

Collegio said Rove is a fundraiser and consultant for Americans Crossroads and not involved in day-to-day operations. He said the problem wasn’t with super PACs, but with the fact that Democrats from Obama on down buried Republicans in fundraising and that the GOP continues to have “suboptimal candidates running for office,” he said.

What Crossroads and other affiliated groups did do, he said, was keep it close: “Obama won by 355,000 votes in four swing states. I don’t think any honest person can say that if Obama outspent us by $150 million without the help of outside groups it would have been that close.”

As the Republican Party undergoes the kind of soul-searching that it must following another tough loss, Rove is certain to want to be at the center of it. It is Rove who has been warning the party that it’s facing a demographic disaster, and indeed, Republicans say Rove can take comfort in the fact that he got them about as close as they could to the White House by relying on the votes of whites.

“He has been one of the few ringing the alarm bells about the Latino vote,” one associate of his said. “He can say, ‘I did the best I could with the electorate we have. You can’t expect me to get Republicans elected with a party that is overtly hostile to a group that went 44 percent for George Bush.’”

But critics of Rove’s say that even though he recognizes that the party needs to modernize, his own role in the Bush administration made such a move harder in the present. It was Rove, after all, who helped engineer the hard right turn in the 2004 race, in which Bush’s moral-values campaign was a rebuke to the marriage-equality fights that were then in the earliest stages of battle. And although Rove urged the GOP to reach out to Latinos, the Bush administration failed to pass any kind of comprehensive immigration reform. The GOP’s recent struggles have even led some to wonder if the myth of Rove as genius strategist was flawed from the start—sure, he won in 2004, but 2000 owes more to the butterfly ballot than any other kind of wizardry, and he oversaw a historic loss in 2006 that the Republican Party has still not been able to overcome.

Some argue that Rove’s prominence on TV and in the political sphere has made him an easy target for Republicans casting about for blame.

“Republicans need to do some real soul-searching,” said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who helped Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, this cycle. “They can trash Karl all they want, and it will make them feel better, but that is not what they need right now.”

After his insistence that Ohio was still too close to call, Rove went right back on Fox the next day, a possible sign that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. “We are dusting ourselves off and looking at how we can correct our mistakes,” said Collegio, of American Crossroads. “We have already begun planning for 2014.”