Did A Right-Wing Media Backlash Kill Karl Rove's Attempt To Moderate The GOP?

A year ago this week, The New York Times reported that Karl Rove was teaming up with “the biggest donors in the Republican Party” to create a new political group to “recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts.” A year later, the group is essentially dormant, having apparently done no fundraising and holding less than $200 cash on hand. What happened?

The Times report in early February 2013 announcing the formation of the Conservative Victory Project was big news in political circles. Rove's two other major political groups -- American Crossroads and its sister organization Crossroads GPS -- had proven to be fundraising juggernauts during the 2012 election cycle, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite the fact that the Crossroads groups were largely ineffective at winning elections in 2012, Rove's apparent fundraising acumen meant that a new group was likely to be a heavy hitter in the world of political groups.

But according to recent filings with the FEC, Conservative Victory Project had $179 cash on hand as of December 31. The group brought in only $10,798 in the second half of 2013, and every dollar came from American Crossroads (its meager spending has all been on mundane things like legal and bank fees and computer support).

The fact that 2013 was mostly an off year for elections may have contributed to the lack of activity surrounding Conservative Victory Project (as it surely did for the Crossroads groups, whose fundraising decreased drastically compared to 2012). But other factors are almost certainly at play -- after all, the group intended to play an active role in GOP primaries around the country this year and rolled out with the help of a major New York Times article last February, a decidedly strange move if it intended to then sit on the sidelines for almost a whole year.

Rove, who has served as a Fox News contributor for several years, has had a historically rocky relationship with some of his fellow conservative media colleagues. The announcement of Conservative Victory Project, which right-wing personalities viewed as a betrayal of the tea party and conservative principles, caused the tensions to boil over.

Rove's Fox News colleague Mike Huckabee called the group “absolutely repulsive” and accused it of planning to engage in “fratricide” towards Republicans. Fellow Fox contributor Erick Erickson told readers of his influential RedState blog that any candidate supported by Rove's group “should be targeted for destruction.” Radio host Mark Levin (who has had harsh words for Rove for years) ripped Rove as a “propagandist,” and claimed that both Rove and his new group “are poison in conservative and Republican circles in many respects.”

Some conservative activists took a more direct approach to hamstringing Rove's fledgling group. In March of last year, roughly a month after the Times article, TIME writer Zeke Miller reported on a letter signed by Media Research Center president Brent Bozell, Citizens United president David Bossie, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins and other activists calling on “Top Crossroads Donors” to refuse to support Conservative Victory Project. According to the letter, the group would “stifle the emergence” of solid conservative candidates while employing the same “model” that led to Crossroads having “squandered hundreds of millions of dollars in what were arguably the most inept campaign advertising efforts ever.” 

While it's possible Conservative Victory Project will ramp up their fundraising early this year, it doesn't look like conservative activists need to be worried about the group squandering millions of dollars, since they effectively have no money to waste.

New York Times article from December may also help explain where money has instead gone. The Times reported on a “quiet but intense” background fight between conservative super PACs challenging Crossroads for big donors. Because of Rove and Crossroads' toxic brand among some conservatives and the backlash from conservative leaders over Conservative Victory Project, the Times explained that Crossroads was “testing a new approach” of setting up “legally separate” local political groups that tap into the same funding base, but benefit from being less overtly tied to Rove.