The Newer, Softer Iteration of American Crossroads

The influential Republican super PAC is now airing positive ads for its favored primary candidates.

Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff and senior advisor to President George W. Bush.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
April 2, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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