The New GOP Civil War

PHOTO: Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, speaks during a panel discussion at the 2008 Mortgage Bankers Association Conference and Expo Oct. 21, 2008 in San Francisco.

"There is now an out in the open civil war within the Republican Party," conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace wrote in a Politico op-ed this week.

He's right.

Karl Rove has launched a new group, the Conservative Victory Project, which will aim to select GOP Senate candidates, weeding out future Todd Akins and squashing the prospects of anyone deemed unelectable.

It's not sitting well with conservatives. Its first purported opponent is Steve King, a very conservative congressman with a history of colorful comments, who may be considering a run for Senate in Iowa.

After the pantheon of Tea Party campaign groups (The Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express) bashed the new effort, on Wednesday a cluster of conservative leaders demanded the new organization fire its spokesman, Jonathan Collegio, for calling Brent Bozell, a pundit who runs the conservative Media Research Center, a "hater" in a recent radio interview. Collegio had alleged that Bozell, a critic, has an ax to grind against Rove.

"His attack was not grounded in reason or principle," they wrote to Stephen F. Law, who will head up the new group. "On behalf of the conservative movement, we are demanding you terminate Mr. Collegio. An apology is not acceptable."

The list of 25 signers included Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, Manuel Miranda and Richard Viguerie -- all big names in the conservative grassroots.

"Rove is no conservative," Terence Jeffrey, editor in chief of the conservative CNS News, wrote in a pointed editorial.

The controversy had reached a fever pitch earlier on Wednesday as Shirley and Bannister, the conservative PR firm representing the new anti-Rove coalition, shopped around unsolicited commentary from a conservative author willing to criticize Rove on the record -- a sure sign that the story had attained du jour status.

Collegio has pointed to the conservative candidates the Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads, has backed, asserting that Crossroads has spent more than any other group to elect Tea Party Senate candidates. Speaking to the ABC/Yahoo! Video series "Top Line" this week, Collegio cited Marco Rubio and Rand Paul as conservative grassroots candidates who enjoyed Rove's support.

Schisms in outside spending on primaries are nothing new. In several 2012 races, tea partiers and GOP-establishment groups squared off.

In Wisconsin, a three-way Senate primary split the tea party factions. The Club for Growth, Tea Party Express and the Senate Conservatives Fund all backed former Rep. Mark Neumann; FreedomWorks, meanwhile, backed businessman Eric Hovde. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson won the primary, only to lose to Democrat Tammy Baldwin in November.

In Missouri's Senate race, where Rep. Todd Akin won a multi-way primary before crumbling under the "legitimate rape" controversy, state treasurer Sarah Steelman won the backing of Tea Party Express and Sarah Palin, while the establishment-oriented U.S. Chamber of Commerce backed St. Louis businessman John Brunner.

In Indiana, the American Action Network and the Young Guns Network spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing incumbent Duck Lugar over Club-for-Growth and FreedomWorks-backed Richard Mourdock, the tea partier who lost after saying pregnancies resulting from rape were intended by God.

Now, however, Rove's new group has become an emblem of the grassroots-vs.-establishment divide -- one that has roiled the GOP since tea parties began in 2009. While American Action Network and the Chamber of Commerce may have toed an establishment line last year, Rove has provoked outright, directed anger.

"What Rove presents is a public face to this," Deace said, noting that outside-spending groups aren't well known to the average primary voter. "Rove is a national name."

After all the criticism it's received, the new endeavor's mission already appears potentially endangered: The minute Conservative Victory Project favors a candidate, an "establishment" label could be permanently applied, damaging that candidate in a primary.

Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker said baggage comes with any kind of outside spending -- from Rove's group, or from those who've criticized it.

"If you have two candidates, and candidate A is being opposed by a super PAC or another entity, it becomes very clear very quickly who is supporting who, and voters are pretty smart," Spiker told ABC News. "I don't expect, especially in a state like Iowa, that they're going to ignore who's paying for these things. They'll notice who's paying, and it'll backfire."

Deace more boldly predicted that Rove's group would fail.

"That person is walking in with a major bulls eye and major baggage," Deace said of any candidate backed by the Conservative Victory Project. "We are rapidly approaching the point where you're almost better off with Barack Obama's endorsement in a GOP primary than Karl Rove's."

It's not entirely clear whether the group will actually support anyone, and its mission appears more neatly suited to the attack-dog role: finding candidates who can't win and airing negative ads to crush them, rather than offering endorsements.

Collegio, the Conservative Victory Project spokesman, countered that the new group won't pick its opponents according to ideology -- rather, electability.

"This will apply to so-called 'establishment' candidates as much as it will to Tea Party candidates," Collegio wrote in an email. "If a candidate is undisciplined or is not raising money, red flags will be raised."

Still, it's easier said than done. For one, Conservative Victory Project will have to identify the "bad" candidates. To hear Collegio tell it, the rubric will be twofold: Can the candidate raise money, and is he or she acceptable to the general electorate? The group will have to become umpire of a political gray area. Red-meat conservatives often call President Obama a socialist; would that kind of remark raise such a flag?

We're about to find out. In Georgia, conservative Rep. Paul Broun announced his Senate candidacy on Wednesday. He recently purported, in a TV interview, that, "I think the only Constitution that Barack Obama upholds is the Soviet constitution, not this one."

Georgia is a conservative state, and if Broun can rake in enough cash, such a comment is unlikely to sink him.

What will Rove's new group do? And, whatever it does, will it work?

"One great thing about the Republican Party is it's a party of ideas, and it's a marketplace, and we'll find out if there's a marketplace for groups like that," Spiker, the Iowa GOP chair, told ABC News. "I suspect there will be blowback from it, and it may end up being counterproductive in the end."

The GOP has a distant an opportunity to gain Senate seats in 10 states next year, and a realistic chance to pick up about seven. Bad candidates will certainly arise. The trick will be finding them before they self-destruct.

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