Since its inception, American Crossroads has spent nearly all of its money on the 2012 presidential election and battleground Senate races, only occasionally involving itself in a House campaign. So when the Karl Rove-connected super PAC decided to spend over $770,000 in a rural New York congressional race last month, taking sides in a heated Republican primary, it raised eyebrows among some GOP strategists.
The expenditures on behalf of 29-year-old Elise Stefanik, a former Bush White House political aide and adviser to Rep. Paul Ryan's 2012 vice presidential campaign, were unusual for two reasons. One, it was the first time that American Crossroads ever went negative against another Republican: Its ad called businessman Matt Doheny a "perpetual loser" and accused him of mistreating his employees. By contrast, the group held its fire against other targeted Republicans, airing only positive spots on behalf of favored GOP candidates like Senate nominee Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Second, Crossroads has acted disinterested in the House landscape this year, given that Republicans are near locks to hold their majority and other GOP-aligned groups are filling that role. The money spent for Stefanik was more than the amount they spent in the nationally watched Florida special election in March won by now-Rep. David Jolly—a race that fueled the narrative that 2014 would be a very favorable year for Republicans.
What made Stefanik unique is that she's a member of the George W. Bush alumni club, having served as a domestic-policy adviser in the former president's administration—and she's not the only candidate with connections to the Bush White House to claim special privileges. In Alaska, leading Senate candidate Dan Sullivan won early support from Crossroads, and received a rare televised endorsement from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a March campaign ad. Sullivan served as Bush's assistant secretary of State for economic, energy, and business affairs. "Crossroads has become a Bush alumni super PAC," said one Republican strategist involved in congressional races.
American Crossroads President Steven Law said the candidates' connections to Bush "are not a factor in our decision-making process." He noted that Ryan was one of Stefanik's biggest champions, encouraging donors and outside groups to get involved for her campaign. (Another Republican campaign official said that the involvement was spurred by top Crossroads donor Paul Singer, who is trying to help elect more Republican women to Congress.) And in the Alaska race, Law said the group endorsed Sullivan because of his fundraising capability, a factor enhanced by his ties to former administration officials. The group hasn't yet spent money or reserved ad time on behalf of Senate nominee Ed Gillespie of Virginia, a former Bush official and Crossroads adviser.
"You have to prioritize where you think you can have the most significant impact. Our primary [campaign] involvement goes through a but-for test—but for our engagement, would we be able to make a meaningful difference in the race?" said Law. The New York race "is one where if there wasn't additional spending on the outside, Doheny would have won the primary and lost again in the general."
To be sure, Crossroads' decisions have proven to be strategically sound, helping stronger candidates prevail through difficult primaries. In Doheny, Stefanik faced a flawed candidate who lost the district twice before and had been photographed making out with one of his fundraising consultants. Sullivan, meanwhile, boasted a compelling resume as a Marine Corps officer, presidential adviser, and statewide officeholder in Alaska. He proved his fundraising viability before Crossroads backed his campaign, while his leading Republican opponent, Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, has struggled to put together a professional operation.
But critics of the group's tactics argue that valuable resources were diverted to an inconsequential House primary, when other Republican establishment groups were fighting to save Sen. Thad Cochran's career in Mississippi, and by extension, the GOP's Senate prospects. After Cochran finished second in the initial primary, Crossroads publicly telegraphed it wasn't doing anything more to help the embattled incumbent for the runoff. Crossroads has also stayed out of other contested Republican primaries where the quality of the nominee made a big difference, like in Georgia and Iowa. By contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has played an outsize role in nominating fights this cycle, aired ads in those races on behalf of Joni Ernst and Rep. Jack Kingston.
Meanwhile, using Rice as a validator in the Alaska television ad struck several Republican operatives as tone-deaf, given that Sullivan was trying to rebut criticism that he wasn't closely connected to Alaska. Utilizing Rice as his leading surrogate only underscored his connections to Washington. As one GOP strategist put it: "There aren't many African-American voters in Alaska."
The most telling test of the group's support for Bush-connected candidates will be in the Virginia Senate race. Gillespie, Bush's former counselor and American Crossroads strategist, once looked poised to receive outside support from his longtime allies. But he's kept his distance from Crossroads, forming a separate We Can Do Better super PAC specifically for his race against Sen. Mark Warner. American Crossroads announced this month it has reserved over $20 million of advertising time in seven Senate battleground states, and Virginia wasn't on the list.
So far, the pro-Gillespie We Can Do Better PAC has been struggling to raise money, bringing in only $140,000 since its formation in January, according to new Federal Election Commission filings. Donors to the super PAC include two former Bush campaign bundlers, according to the Center for Public Integrity; the two have also been generous contributors to American Crossroads.
Law said that the group is still evaluating the Virginia Senate race, and will reassess whether their involvement could make a difference around Labor Day.
"The whole issue in Virginia is to see if there's a pathway to victory and whether our involvement makes a material difference," said Law. "We don't want to telegraph our strategy there. Ed's raising money, staying on message, he's setting up the frame of the race the way he needs to do it."
This article appears in the July 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.
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