Karl Rove takes on the tea party. Is a GOP civil war looming?

GOP strategist Karl Rove launches a group to back candidates it sees as most electable, reports say. Tea party groups and others are crying foul.

Tony Gutierrez/AP/File
Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor to President George W. Bush, leads a panel discussion in Dallas, in this 2011 file photo. Rove, a GOP strategist, launches a group to give support in Republican primaries to the candidates they see as most electable.

Is the Republican Party's internal warfare about to get a whole lot worse?

Over the weekend, The New York Times's Jeff Zeleny reported that the Republican establishment is taking quick strides – via a new political group created by strategist Karl Rove – to fix what they've taken to calling their "Todd Akin problem." They'll be giving support in Republican primaries to the candidates they see as most electable. 

Former Rep. Todd Akin (R), as you may recall, was the 2012 Missouri Senate candidate who lost what was widely seen as a winnable race after he said that cases of "legitimate rape" rarely resulted in pregnancy. The remarks were widely ridiculed – including by many in Mr. Akin's own party – and have been cited repeatedly by party bigwigs as examples of "stupid," self-inflicted wounds that cost Republicans a chance at controlling the Senate.

Predictably, however, Mr. Rove's effort is already being met with cries of outrage from tea party groups and others who see it as a misguided slap in the face to the base. They view Rove as a faux-conservative strategist who took the party in the wrong direction throughout the Bush years and spent an epic amount of money in 2012, only to see most of his candidates lose. 

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin called the move "doubling down on stupid" and added: "Who needs Obama and his Team Chicago to destroy the Tea Party when you’ve got Rove and his big government band of elites?" Likewise, RedState's Erick Erickson writes: "I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement. They’ve made it really easy now to figure out who the terrible candidates will be in 2014."

The question is what, exactly, the GOP establishment thinks its "Todd Akin problem" really is. Are they just hoping to weed out clumsy, unprofessional candidates who are prone to saying kooky-sounding things? Or is this an effort to bring the party back to the center – meaning, will they target those whose views on issues like abortion (no exceptions in cases of rape and incest) are out of the mainstream? 

Our sense is that, in theory at least, it's more the former than the latter.

As many on the right have pointed out, for every Akin out there, there's a tea party-backed candidate with equally conservative views who won a contested primary and went on to win the general election.

Politico quotes a spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth – which has been active in supporting far-right candidates in primaries – as saying: “[Rove and his donors] are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, and David Dewhurst. We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz." Senators Toomey, Rubio, and Cruz are all strong conservatives who either defeated or chased out of the party their more moderate GOP opponents (Messrs. Specter, Crist, and Dewhurst) and have gone on to become leading Republican voices in the US Senate.

Notably, there is not a whole lot of daylight between, say, Cruz and Akin when it comes to policy. Cruz, of Texas, who was just elected last November, is opposed to abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is in jeopardy – meaning that, like Akin, he would not allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

But in terms of pure political skills, the gulf is glaringly wide. During the 2012 campaign, then-candidate Cruz was asked to comment on Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's controversial assertion that when a pregnancy occurs as a result of rape, it is "something that God intended to happen" and therefore should not be terminated. Cruz simply refused to take the bait, calling it an "unfortunate distraction" and saying he wouldn't engage in hypotheticals. End of story.

The point is, we doubt Rove's group would want to focus on candidates like Cruz – a rising-star Hispanic with degrees from Princeton and Harvard who electrified the base with his speech at the Republican National Convention and has remained in the spotlight ever since. Also, based on what many conservatives are saying, there aren't many in the party who would really be opposed to efforts to block clearly substandard candidates like Akin from getting nominated.   

But most candidates aren't obviously in the Akin or Cruz category. And while everyone can agree on losers and winners in hindsight, there often isn't the same kind of consensus during the heat of the campaign. What one side sees as a dangerous tendency toward "stupid" statements, the other may see as a rare and admirable form of "truth telling." 

Which means the party may be in for some epic primary battles. 

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