Former Bush Officials Getting Extra Campaign Help From American Crossroads

The Karl Rove-backed super PAC helped nominate a 29-year-old former Bush adviser in a competitive congressional primary.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to the crowd at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2012 during the Republican National Convention.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 10, 2014, 3:35 p.m.

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.”

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