Karl Rove's next target may be Steve King

After a dismal performance by his political vehicles in 2012, the man once known as “Bush’s brain” is working to stop unelectable Republican candidates from winning GOP primaries in 2014. Jeff Zeleny reports in today’s New York Times that Karl Rove’s super-PAC American Crossroads is creating the “Conservative Victory Project.” One of Rove’s associates confirmed that stopping Representative Steve King from becoming the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Iowa will be a priority.

Details and toplines from the first poll on the open IA-Sen race are below.

First, let’s take a moment to savor how little bang for the buck Rove’s donors got last year for giving more than $300 million to the super-PAC American Crossroads and the 501(c)4 Crossroads GPS:

Rove, through his two political outfits, American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, backed unsuccessful Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney with $127 million on more than 82,000 television spots, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, an ad tracker based in New York. Down the ballot, 10 of the 12 Senate candidates and four of the nine House candidates the Rove groups supported also lost their races.

The Sunlight Foundation estimated that only 1 percent of the money spent by American Crossroads supported the winning side, while about 13 percent of spending by Crossroads GPS “backed winning candidates” (or more accurately, attacked Democrats who ended up losing the race).

Crossroads GPS spent money in two of the U.S. House races in Iowa. Those might be considered success stories for Rove, though I doubt the attack ads against Leonard Boswell in IA-03 and Christie Vilsack in IA-04 affected the outcome of those races.

After the election, Rove defended his performance and suggested (laughably) that President Barack Obama “succeeded by suppressing the vote.”

But in fairness to Rove, Republicans did nominate some very weak candidates in a lot of the races they lost last year. That’s where the Conservative Victory Project comes in, according to the must-read story by Zeleny.

“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the “super PAC” creating the new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.” […]

Representative Steve King, a six-term Iowa Republican, could be among the earliest targets of the Conservative Victory Project. He said he had not decided whether he would run for the Senate, but the leaders of the project in Washington are not waiting to try to steer him away from the race.

The group’s plans, which were outlined for the first time last week in an interview with Mr. Law, call for hard-edge campaign tactics, including television advertising, against candidates whom party leaders see as unelectable and a drag on the efforts to win the Senate. Mr. Law cited Iowa as an example and said Republicans could no longer be squeamish about intervening in primary fights.

“We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem,” Mr. Law said. “This is an example of candidate discipline and how it would play in a general election. All of the things he’s said are going to be hung around his neck.”

I stand by my opinion that King is smart enough to understand he could never win a statewide election for any office in Iowa. But he claims to be seriously considering the Senate race. If anything could provoke him into running for the Senate seat, it would be a ham-handed effort by beltway “elites” to keep him out. Why Rove’s sidekick would talk to the New York Times about this strategy is completely beyond me. Responding to the story, King told Zeleny,

“This is a decision for Iowans to make and should not be guided by some political staffers in Washington,” Mr. King said in an interview, pointing out that he won his Congressional race last year even though President Obama easily defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa. “The last election, they said I couldn’t win that, either, and the entire machine was against me.”

Who said you couldn’t win, Congressman? The Republican voter registration advantage in the new IA-04 was so big that I didn’t believe the early rumors about Christie Vilsack running there. The competitive Iowa caucuses on the Republican side increased the GOP advantage.

A closer look at the numbers shows that King received fewer votes in his own district than Romney did. he only defeated Vilsack by about 30,000 votes in a district with 50,000 more Republicans than Democrats.

Since Senator Tom Harkin announced his retirement, only one public Iowa poll has been released. HarperPolling surveyed 523 Iowans on January 29 and found little competition to Representative Bruce Braley on the Democratic side, while King led Republican respondents.

In a multi-candidate primary, King leads Latham and conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats 31%-26%-16%.  The presence of Vander Plaats and libertarian-leaning candidate Drew Ivers appears to drain a bit of King’s support.  In a two-way race against Latham, King’s lead grows to 46%-29%. […]

King’s image rating is split at 35% favorable and 35% unfavorable.  This is driven by ideology.  The Very Conservative give him a 72% favorable rating while only 10% of Moderates say the same thing. […]

In head-to-head matchups, King starts 5% behind Braley (34%-39%) and Latham starts 3% ahead of Braley (36%-33%).

Click here (pdf) for the toplines of the HarperPolling survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.28 percent.

I got a kick out of the Iowa Capitol .gif-t Shop’s take on this poll, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. King will certainly not run against Latham in a Senate primary. If Latham runs, King will stay out of this race. Even if Latham doesn’t run, I expect King to stay in IA-04, where he has a safe perch for the next decade. Governor Terry Branstad cut a radio ad for King’s Congressional race but has publicly expressed skepticism about his ability to win a Senate race.

“I think Steve King, I just don’t think he can do it in Eastern Iowa. He’s a great friend of mine, he’s a good guy, he’s a good congressman, and if he focuses on his district, he can represent that as long as he wants. But in terms of him winning statewide, I think that would be a tough uphill climb,” Branstad said.

“Latham, on the other hand, if he were to want to run, look at this: He’s represented northeast, north central, northwest and now southwest and Des Moines. There’s only one quarter of the state he’s not represented, and he’s been the best vote-getter we’ve ever had,” he went on. “If Tom Latham wanted to run for the Senate, he’d be a very formidable candidate. I’m not sure that he’s interested in it.”

It would be hilarious if Rove and his high-dollar donors goad King into running for Senate, just to prove the Republican establishment wrong.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Right-wing groups react to Zeleny’s story.

Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, branded it the “Conservative Defeat Project.”

“The Conservative Defeat Project is yet another example of the Republican establishment’s hostility toward its conservative base. Rather than listening to the grassroots and working to advance their principles, the establishment has chosen to declare war on the party’s most loyal supporters,” Hoskins said. “If they keep this up, the party will remain in the wilderness for decades to come.”

Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller essentially responded by pointing to the scoreboard in recent primaries in which conservative insurgents have prevailed and emerged as influential GOP leaders.

“They are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst,” Keller said of the new Crossroads group. “We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.”

Please let these groups encourage King to run for Senate.

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