American Crossroads, At a Crossroads

Karl Rove’s well-funded super PAC has been conspicuously quiet in 2013, raising questions about its influence in 2014.

Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 18, 2013, 1:32 a.m.

If 2012 was the cam­paign of the su­per PAC, 2013 is shap­ing up to prove the max­im that there’s an un­ceas­ing ap­pet­ite for groups to spend money in polit­ics. But there’s one power play­er that’s ly­ing low in the off year: Karl Rove’s Amer­ic­an Cross­roads. Even with the in­flux of out­side cash, the grand­daddy of all su­per PACs hasn’t spent a dime on cam­paign activ­ity this year.

At a time when grow­ing num­bers of GOP strategists be­lieve that (very) early en­gage­ment against op­pon­ents is prefer­able to a last-minute blitz, Cross­roads’ passiv­ity stands out. Cross­roads hasn’t spent any money to soften up Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors in trouble next year. At this point in 2011, they spent early money to hit Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri and former Sen. Ben Nel­son of Neb­raska. There’s no sim­il­ar ad blitz be­ing planned to soften up vul­ner­able Demo­crats in 2014.

In­deed, the group has held its fire since start­ing off the year on a con­tro­ver­sial note. Soon after the 2012 elec­tions, Amer­ic­an Cross­roads launched the Con­ser­vat­ive Vic­tory Pro­ject, a spinoff group de­signed to pre­vent weak can­did­ates from emer­ging in big Sen­ate races. It im­me­di­ately drew harsh cri­ti­cism from grass­roots con­ser­vat­ives, and hasn’t been heard from since Feb­ru­ary. Mean­while, the party still faces the very real threat of a Todd Akin-like can­did­ate emer­ging in ruby-red Geor­gia, and GOP re­cruit­ing in the tra­di­tion­al battle­ground states has lagged.

Mean­while, the group drew fire from Re­pub­lic­ans when it stayed out of this year’s high-pro­file Mas­sachu­setts Sen­ate race, de­clin­ing to as­sist the party’s His­pan­ic nom­in­ee whose cam­paign was badly out­spent by Demo­crat­ic out­side groups. Based on its polling, Cross­roads didn’t think the race was win­nable, and didn’t want to start off the year with an ex­pens­ive de­feat. But it was also a leap to as­sume Gab­ri­el Gomez couldn’t win without giv­ing him the re­sources to get his mes­sage out.

It’s in stark con­trast to the flurry of early polit­ic­al activ­ity around them, where money from oth­er out­side groups is be­ing spent with aban­don. On the left, the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters already dished out $2 mil­lion this sum­mer against Re­pub­lic­ans, hit­ting Sen. Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin, who’s not even on the bal­lot un­til 2016, along with oth­er vul­ner­able rep­res­ent­at­ives. The Demo­crat­ic House Ma­jor­ity su­per PAC spent big against South Car­o­lina’s Mark San­ford, while its Sen­ate coun­ter­part helped Ed­ward Mar­key win the va­cant seat in Mas­sachu­setts.

On the right, the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund has been ir­rit­at­ing Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors with a slew of ra­dio ads ur­ging them to de­fund Obama­care. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, fa­cing a chal­len­ging reelec­tion, even has his own su­per PAC at­tack­ing his op­pos­i­tion.

And in­de­pend­ent New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg is con­tinu­ing to spend big bucks at­tack­ing gun-sup­port­ing politicos. Last month, he spent $350,000 to back two Demo­crat­ic Col­or­ado state sen­at­ors, both of whom lost re­calls this month for sup­port­ing gun-con­trol le­gis­la­tion in their state.

Sev­er­al factors are con­trib­ut­ing to Amer­ic­an Cross­roads’ lower pro­file this year. Dona­tions to the su­per PAC are down in the off year. Through the first six months of 2013, it raised $1.86 mil­lion. Dur­ing the same peri­od in 2011, it raised $3.93 mil­lion. After Mitt Rom­ney’s de­feat and los­ing 11 of 13 Sen­ate races it spent money on in 2012, big donors are less will­ing to pony up.

The emer­gence of state- and race-based su­per PACs is also play­ing a role in di­vert­ing money and fo­cus away from Amer­ic­an Cross­roads. Cross­roads Pres­id­ent Steven Law, a former Mc­Con­nell chief of staff, is on the board of the Ken­tucki­ans for Strong Lead­er­ship su­per PAC, which has already been up with ads against Mc­Con­nell’s Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes. The Amer­ic­ans for Pro­gress­ive Ac­tion su­per PAC emerged to help Gomez in the Mas­sachu­setts Sen­ate spe­cial elec­tion, though it lacked the fire­power of the op­pos­i­tion.

“Con­sult­ants are try­ing to be en­tre­pren­eur­i­al, by design. They want ad­visers who have state-spe­cif­ic, can­did­ate-spe­cif­ic ex­pert­ise,” said one Re­pub­lic­an su­per PAC strategist.

Amer­ica Rising, the GOP’s op­pos­i­tion re­search and rap­id re­sponse start-up, is also lay­ing the ground­work for fu­ture at­tack ads, di­min­ish­ing the need for early en­gage­ment. With re­sources de­voted to re­search and track­ing, they’ve been able to gen­er­ate un­fa­vor­able news cov­er­age for Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates at a lower cost than ex­pens­ive TV buys. Re­pub­lic­ans now view dif­fer­ent groups filling dif­fer­ent roles as a more ef­fi­cient al­loc­a­tion of party re­sources than a one-size-fits-all su­per PAC.

“From our per­spect­ive, when we en­gage, we have a long-term sus­tained strategy we’re pur­su­ing rather than spend­ing $80,000 in March of the off year. Early spend­ing is im­port­ant but it needs to be sus­tained as part of a longer-term strategy,” said Cross­roads’ Law. “These short-term skir­mishes are more de­signed for a brief im­pact, and to gen­er­ate fun­drais­ing, and brand po­s­i­tion­ing. That’s something we nev­er have done much of.”

So far this year, the group spent its time fo­cused on policy over polit­ics, launch­ing small, six-fig­ure pub­li­city cam­paigns against Obama­care and per­suad­ing skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­ans to sup­port com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form. That shift fell short, with im­mig­ra­tion all but dead in Con­gress and Re­pub­lic­ans di­vided on tac­tics on bat­tling the pres­id­ent’s un­pop­u­lar health care law. Rove, the group’s founder, has be­come deeply dis­trus­ted by some con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists, who view him as the face of the dreaded es­tab­lish­ment.

Amer­ic­an Cross­roads sources said they haven’t be­gun rais­ing money in earn­est for the new cycle; their fun­drais­ing ef­forts are ramp­ing up this fall. Law said the group still ex­pects to spend about $100 mil­lion on the 2014 midterms, around the same amount that went to­ward con­gres­sion­al races in the 2012 elec­tions.

But even with an im­pos­ing budget, it’s strik­ing to see how much more com­pet­i­tion the group now faces — with donors, with­in Re­pub­lic­an ranks and in the wider su­per PAC world. In GOP circles, hav­ing a clear and co­ordin­ated mes­sage is now seen as more im­port­ant than spend­ing huge sums of money. In­deed, the Sen­ate battle­ground land­scape next year is filled with races in small states — Alaska, Arkan­sas, Louisi­ana, among them — where it doesn’t take that much money to sat­ur­ate the air­waves with neg­at­ive ads. The bar for entry is much lower than in the past, in­vit­ing much more ideo­lo­gic­ally-driv­en com­pet­i­tion.

Cross­roads helped fash­ion the cur­rent cam­paign fin­ance land­scape, and the group will play a pivotal role in 2014, with con­trol of the Sen­ate up for grabs. But if Re­pub­lic­ans fall short again, it could eas­ily find it­self dis­placed in a rap­idly evolving and grow­ing world of well-fun­ded out­side groups.

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