Just four years after he slid out of the White House as the embattled Rasputin to a flailing president, Karl Rove has reinvented himself as the dominant private citizen in the Republican Party. He is today a driving force behind both the powerful advocacy organization Crossroads GPS and its even more influential sibling, American Crossroads, the largest SuperPAC on the right. Meanwhile, even as he has been raising money to defeat Democrats, the 60-year-old Rove has carved out a second career as a well-paid pundit for Fox News and as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal—and, in that role, he has been at times merciless in policing his own side of the political spectrum. As the Republican campaign has unfolded, Rove the pundit has frequently seemed offended by the self-destructiveness of every GOP contender not named “Mitt Romney.” From the outset, Rove belittled longtime foe Rick Perry for reinforcing his dumb “cowboy from Texas” image. He was scathing over Michele Bachmann’s false claims that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. And, after Herman Cain catastrophically botched a question about Libya, Rove dubbed him “not ready for prime time.”
The upshot of all this activity is that, for the second time in recent years, political junkies of both the right and the left are obsessed with Rove’s nefarious influence. Based on his Fox News critiques, some Tea Partiers, including Cain, believe that he is secretly in the Romney camp, even though Rove has never been close to the former Massachusetts governor. Democrats, in turn, seize on every TV commercial that American Crossroads puts on the air as evidence that Rove still practices guttersnipe politics. A mid-November press release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) was headlined: “KARL ROVE'S RIGHT WING FRONT GROUP PROPS UP SENATE REPUBLICANS WITH ATTACK ADS.” These days, Rove vies with Rush Limbaugh as the leading target of liberal demonology.
There is no doubt, certainly, that Rove is influential. But, as I spent time speaking to insiders from both parties about him, I initially struggled to pin down the exact nature of his resurgent influence. The classic line on Rove has always been that his political instincts are unrivaled by any Republican since the heyday of his mentor, Lee Atwater. Yet, while Crossroads undoubtedly played an important role in the 2010 campaign by flooding the airwaves with ads for Republican Senate candidates, the only thing memorable about these ads was their omnipresence. Moreover, Crossroads failed to dislodge Harry Reid, even though the Rove groups spent more than $4.3 million in Nevada. “There’s nothing they’ve been putting out there that’s distinctive,” says J.B. Poersch, who endured the 2010 Crossroads ad barrage as executive director of the DSCC. Indeed, the chapter in Rove’s 2010 autobiography, Courage and Consequence, describing a Rovian campaign is filled with commonplace observations, such as, “A campaign’s essential argument must be easily understood, capable of being widely disseminated, backed by evidence, and authentic.” That is not exactly like being handed the secret formula for Coca-Cola.
Even as they gush over Rove, Republican disciples find it hard to explain his unique talents. “He is very sharp in messaging,” explains Rick Wiley, the political director of the Republican National Committee. “He reads polls constantly. With a TV ad, you have only seventy-five words. He knows what those seventy-five words are and in what order they should be.” It’s hard to see how that distinguishes him from many other political strategists. Moreover, if you listen to his comments about the candidates on Fox News or read them in The Wall Street Journal, they are often little more than the conventional wisdom. In truth, most of Rove’s horse-race punditry would be unremarkable if the same words (“This is not a good week for Herman Cain”) were delivered by a non-polarizing commentator like Chuck Todd or Carl Cameron.
The mismatch between the myth and the reality of Rove was a theme that kept coming up when I asked sources about him. “The whole Rove brand as an evil genius is wrong. Karl is neither,” says Matt Dowd, the Bush campaign’s polling guru in 2000 and 2004, who publicly broke with the administration over Iraq in early 2007. Steve Schmidt, who worked for Rove in 2004 and ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign, has a similar, if far more charitable, view. As he puts it: “I think that literally there is no person in public life whose reality is more different from their image. He’s a fundamentally decent guy. ... But there is a myth that has taken hold around him about the omnipotence of Rove.” A leading Democratic operative, who did not want to be directly quoted disparaging his own party, told me: “We kind of created the monster we’re dealing with now in Rove. We went after Bush as stupid and made it look like Rove was running a shadow presidency. That helped set the table for the current environment in which he has thrived.”
In fairness, no one disputes that Rove is smart and well-read, even though he evinces an autodidact’s zeal for displaying his own erudition. (On his website, Rove offers capsule reviews of 41 books that he has read in the last two years, and he told me via e-mail that he had just finished David Jordan’s recently published chronicle of the 1944 presidential race.) Rove clearly has pulled off a transformative achievement in creating American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS—and those groups are bound to cause serious headaches for Democrats in the 2012 campaign. But the more I learned about Rove, the more I was forced to consider the possibility that his major talent is something other than what everyone assumes it is.
TO UNDERSTAND ROVE'S new role in the Republican Party, we need to pause for a brief and slightly simplified primer on the recent revolution in our system of campaign fund-raising. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowed corporations to fund explicit political ads. But, if corporations and individuals want to keep their donations secret, they must give to an issue advocacy group like Crossroads GPS, which is legally limited in how much it can spend on campaign-related activities.
For those whose overriding goal is effectiveness rather than secrecy, there is a far better option: donating to a SuperPAC like American Crossroads. SuperPACs (Marvel Comics does not control the rights to the name) were spawned by a 2010 federal appeals court ruling coupled with permissive regulations from the toothless Federal Election Commission (FEC). SuperPACs can raise and spend unlimited campaign money as long as it is disclosed to the FEC and not directly coordinated with a candidate.
Rove had no role in creating this new legal environment reminiscent of the freewheeling years before Watergate. But, if Rove and his allies did not invent it, they certainly were adroit at exploiting it. American Crossroads quickly emerged as the largest SuperPAC during the 2010 cycle, spending $21.5 million, mostly on Senate races. Crossroads GPS kicked in another $17 million in campaign ads and other electoral activities.
Rove’s celebrity makes him the top fund-raising lure for Crossroads. With the possible exception of outgoing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who will be joining Crossroads when his term expires in January, no one in Republican politics is better at sitting at the head of a conference table and inspiring donors to write six- and seven-digit checks. “Karl does have a fantastic Rolodex and great relationships with donors,” says Steven Law, the president of Crossroads. “And then there is the strong perception of his unique strategic and political gifts that give donors a lot of confidence.” (One thing that has also helped give Crossroads credibility with Republican donors is that Rove—who estimated via e-mail that he currently devotes about 30 percent of his time to Crossroads—has not used the groups as a personal profit center. Despite Democratic conspiracy theories, offered to me without evidence, both Rove and Law say Rove’s involvement is totally altruistic. “He doesn’t get paid directly or indirectly,” Law says.)
But toting up dollar figures is a crude way to measure the impact of independent campaign spending. Traditionally, cause-oriented groups, like the Club for Growth and MoveOn.org, have come across as more interested in running TV ads that appeal to their donors than in actually winning elections. Their ads often seem intended to pull Republican candidates to the right or Democrats to the left. This type of self-indulgence exasperates political professionals in both parties. “A lot of outside groups pre-Crossroads were essentially ideological clubhouses,” says Schmidt. “In fact, you could make a serious argument that the net effect of their advertising strategy was to lessen the chances that the Republicans would win a seat or hold a seat. See, for example, Club for Growth.” Rove set out to change this pattern. According to Law, who was at the Chamber of Commerce before he moved to Crossroads, Rove saw “the potential for independent groups that are very focused, disciplined, and professionally run by seasoned political teams.”
Perhaps Rove’s biggest initiative at Crossroads was conceptually modest, initially difficult to achieve, and ultimately potent: He convinced most other major independent groups aligned with the Republican Party to work together. “Groups tend to be territorial,” says Law. “They don’t like somebody else telling them what to do. And they’re especially proprietary about their information and their strategies and their donors.” Rove summarized his strategy via e-mail: “Invited them to lunch, suggested we all might be more effective and efficient if we shared our plans, shared costs and resources where possible.” The result is regular Washington meetings and coordination among groups like Crossroads, the Chamber of Commerce, and Americans for Prosperity (funded by the billionaire Koch brothers) to plot how to bedevil the Democrats in 2012.
Crossroads insiders talk about spending more than $240 million in the upcoming election, a daunting but plausible figure with the likes of Rove and Barbour doing the asking. Interestingly, the presidential race isn’t where this money is likely to make the largest difference: It is hard to see Rove’s group as more than a bit player in a contest in which President Obama and the Democrats are likely to top $1 billion—especially since it is widely held that TV ads are less influential in a presidential race than in any other election, since voters are blessed (or cursed) with so much information from so many different sources.
Instead, it’s on Capitol Hill where Democrats rightly fear Rove’s wrath. Mark Mellman, Reid’s pollster, admits to being “frightened” by Rove and his allies as Democrats struggle to hold the Senate. “You have a lot of potentially very close Senate races where one side with a fund-raising advantage can change everything,” Mellman says. Ali Lapp, who runs the House Majority PAC, a SuperPAC designed to help Democrats defy the odds and win back the House, puts it this way: “It’s a real fear that the Republicans will have a tidal wave of corporate and conservative money that could wash over everything.”
IT IS FITTING that Rove, who got his start in GOP politics in the 1970s as a master of using direct-mail to bring in money, has entered his éminence grise phase as perhaps the leading fund-raiser in the Republican Party. Yet the nature of his role keeps being misunderstood on both the right and left. Conservatives worry that Rove the pundit is trying to determine the outcome of the GOP primaries—but it is ludicrous to believe that he can impose his will on the Republican presidential race with a few comments to Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. Democrats, meanwhile, continue to view him as an evil genius whose strategic cunning is worthy of Richard Nixon. But Rove’s political instincts are hardly infallible—recall the GOP wipeout in the 2006 congressional elections or his support of Kay Bailey Hutchison against Rick Perry in the 2010 Texas primary.
What Rove has always been and continues to be, however, is hyper-organized and relentlessly focused. He is both an outstanding fund-raiser and someone who boasts the stature and the skill to bring people together around a common goal. As Jim Pinkerton, a GOP issues maven who has known Rove for three decades, explains, “Karl has an executive personality—he runs meetings.” That is what Rove did throughout the 2004 reelection race, as he coordinated the White House and the Bush campaign at weekend meetings known as “the breakfast club.” Those organizational skills, rather than some overarching theory of political history, are at the core of what passes for the Rove magic. They are, I suspect, the primary reason that the two Crossroads groups have been so successful in this anything-goes era of political finance. And they could end up being the crucial difference for congressional Republicans in 2012.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.