Bush administration strategist Karl Rove has decided to use Super PAC money to promote electable candidates in Republican primaries and to undermine the more ideological and unelectable sort. Short term, it’s another win for the Democrats. Long term, whichever side wins this war will determine the course of the right in America, the Republican Party and indeed the Republic itself for a generation or two.
Mr. Rove is still reeling from the crushing defeats of November. His, American Crossroads, spent millions upon millions of dollars promoting specific Republican candidates trying to retake the Senate for the GOP and expand the Republican majority in the House. He accomplished neither, and indeed, candidates backed by American Crossroads lost more than 98% of their races. Mr. Rove believes this abject failure to be the fault of the extremists collectively labeled the Tea Party.
No objective observer of politics can conclude that moving farther away from wherever the political center lies will win elections. The “McGovern” wing of the Democratic Party took over the machinery in the 1970s, and Reagan won two elections followed by Mr. Bush the Elder. Militant Tendency in Britain’s Labour Party in the 1980s helped ensure Thatcherism spent longer in the sun than it deserved. The Tea Party is a reactionary group, a loud and unyielding minority within the GOP that makes the more moderate Republicans guilty by association and costs them all votes.
Having announced he was going to spend money to help “electable conservatives,” the true believers turned their guns on Mr. Rove. Redstate.com commented on Mr. Rove’s move under a headline “The Snakes in the GOP Grass.” Breitbart.com ran the headline “Rove Declares War on Tea Party” and started with “The battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party has begun. On one side is the Tea Party. On the other side stand Karl Rove and his establishment team, posing as tacticians while quietly undermining conservatism.”
Mr. Rove is in for a fight clearly. And there is every chance that he will lose. He wants to raise money to spend against Tea Party candidates, buying commercial time to run negative ads. This may work to bring them down in the primaries, but if it doesn’t, he will have made the Democrats’ ads for them. Mr. Rove errs in thinking that one can win elections that way. Elections are not auctions, so money itself is but one tool in a campaign. Activists are what he really needs, people who will arrange phone banks, emails, twitter accounts, house parties, and all the other cornball, retail facets of politics. Yes, they will need money, but money cannot replace them. Moreover, it may be illegal for a Super PAC to pay them.
This journal predicted Barack Obama’s re-election months before the people voted based on a few simple numbers. The Obama team had three times as many field offices in Ohio as the Romney team did. It had registered vastly more new voters in Florida. While the Obama team and the Romney team spent about the same amount on full-time staff salaries, the president hired twice as many people for that money. And nationwide, the Obama campaign amassed the largest email list in history.
Mr. Rove is in danger of losing his fight because money doesn’t win elections. Organization does. If the Tea Party should prevail, the Democrats could run America for several years. Yet if Mr. Rove prevails after a bloody fight, the Tea Party may stay home on future elections day or split off entirely, and that yields the same result. What would Mr. Reagan think?