One year ago, the Karl Rove-backed super PAC American Crossroads announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, an initiative it promised would torpedo Senate candidates who were too flawed to win a general election. The days of Todd Akins and Sharron Angles costing the party winnable Senate seats were over, so its backers said.
But as activists ridiculed CVP as doomed to fail, it didn't raise any money from donors last year, and most activists forgot the once-ballyhooed project even existed. The message was clear: Even with all its vast resources, Crossroads still faced inherent challenges in handpicking its favored candidates. Crossroads officials were left to ponder the next steps.
Now, they've found their footing. The buys on behalf of Dan Sullivan in Alaska and Thom Tillis in North Carolina, two establishment-friendly candidates, offer clues about the group's new cautious approach in GOP primaries. Both ads praise the candidates without making reference to the weaknesses of their Republican opponents. And while the spots don't significantly alter the contours of their primary fights, Republicans believe they could be critical in avoiding ugly primary fights.
It's a far cry from the group's original intentions of spending big money to disqualify flawed challengers. But with its altered approach, Crossroads might be regaining its stature as the head of the Republican super PAC establishment, a title threatened by the group's weak fundraising last year after a disappointing 2012 election cycle. The lingering question is whether it is content to play the role of boosting already-favored Republicans, or whether it will navigate in trickier primaries where the stronger candidates need more aggressive assistance.
The dilemma facing Crossroads, one that also confronts other establishment Republican groups nationwide, is that any help they might offer a candidate of choice could backfire. At a time when anti-Washington sentiment runs high, no one wants to be seen as the handpicked candidate of the establishment.
Crossroads is side-stepping that pitfall by entering the races where it faces the least risk. Supporting Dan Sullivan in Alaska, for instance, isn't a particularly controversial decision: Not only does he have the implicit support of most Washington Republicans, but he also has the endorsement of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.
The case is murkier in North Carolina, where Tillis, the state's House speaker, faces a mélange of foes seeking the tea-party mantle (and must reach 40 percent in the May primary to avoid a runoff). But even here, save for endorsements of competitors from Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Mike Huckabee, there's broad consensus that Tillis is the best-positioned Republican in a weak field to take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
The state House leader's opponents say they plan to use Crossroads's endorsement against him—but they already were tarring him as Rove's hand-picked candidate before the ads were even announced. (Tillis participated in fundraisers with Rove last year.) Tillis's campaign manager, Jordan Shaw, welcomed the cash influx as proof his boss was the superior candidate. "We have to build a campaign and a network that is able to defeat an incumbent Democrat who is going to be well funded by liberal special interests," he said.
The Crossroads ads themselves are risk-averse. In a rarity for super PACs, they're each positive, and neither takes any swipes at a fellow Republican. Sullivan's spot features an endorsement from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while Tillis's ad touts his conservative bona fides. There's not much for conservatives to get angry about. It's a departure for the group, whose leaders in the past have been skeptical that outside groups can be effective in running positive spots for a candidate.
Even the campaign of one of Tillis's opponents, the pastor Mark Harris, concedes Rove won't be much of an issue. "Karl Rove is not on the ballot," said Tom Perdue, a consultant for Harris. "Rank-and-file grassroots people might now know who Karl Rove is." (Perdue adds that Crossroads' investment proves they're worried about his chances. "I have seen a lot of media people and campaign consultants dress up a candidate, but I'm not sure putting lip stick on a pig is going to make people think it's a hunting dog.")
Where and when Crossroads strikes next is unclear; the group's political director, Carl Forti, told National Journal he did not want to discuss its future plans. But if it wants to expand its reach to other Republican primaries, it might find that other Senate primaries aren't as inviting for outside interference. A state like Iowa, for instance, has two establishment-friendly candidates—state Sen. Joni Ernst and former energy company executive Mark Jacobs—who are viewed as the front-runners. Both bring different assets to the race: Jacobs is personally wealthy, while Ernst's profile as a female military veteran is potentially appealing.
And in Georgia, home to possibly the party's most competitive Republican primary, a similar situation has unfolded: Businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston have emerged as the front-runners, and both are considered favorably by the party establishment. Republican strategists are concerned about the candidacy of tea-party-aligned Rep. Paul Broun, but airing ads against him would only motivate his core supporters.
"I think there's so many Senate races this year that Republicans are competitive in, it probably doesn't make sense to spend resources in a state where your likely nominee is going to be a strong nominee," said Eric Tanenblatt, the Atlanta-based finance co-chairman for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
If Republicans can nominate electable candidates from these murky primary fields—no small feat—Crossroads will have played a crucial, if unheralded role, in helping the GOP's chances of retaking the Senate majority. It may not get as much attention for itsr efforts as in past elections, but the results are shaping up to be more rewarding.
This article appears in the April 5, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine.