This article originally appeared in RS 1105 from May 27, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
One afternoon in late April, Karl Rove welcomed an elite group of conservative political operatives and moneymen into his home in Washington, D.C. Along with his protégé Ed Gillespie, who succeeded him as George W. Bush's top political adviser, Rove had gathered together the heavyweights of the GOP's fundraising network. In attendance were the political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as the leaders of two new megadollar campaign groups loyal to Rove: American Crossroads and the American Action Network. Rove's plan was straightforward: to seize control of the party from Michael Steele, whose leadership of the Republican National Committee was imploding in the wake of a fundraiser at a lesbian bondage club. By building a war chest of unregulated campaign cash – an unprecedented $135 million to be raised by these three groups alone – Rove would be able to wage the midterm elections on his own terms: electing candidates loyal to the GOP's wealthiest donors and corporate patrons. With the media's attention diverted by the noisy revolt being waged by the Tea Party, the man known as "Bush's brain" was staging a stealthier but no less significant coup of the Republican Party.
"What they've cooked up is brilliant," says a prominent Democrat. "Evil, but brilliant."
Rove and Gillespie, who effectively ran the Republican Party throughout the past decade, recognized that Steele's weakness represented an opportunity to stage a quiet comeback. But taking control of the party, they knew, would require a new kind of political machine. The Supreme Court, in its recent decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, opened the floodgates for unlimited political spending by corporations and individuals. But the court left in place strict limits on contributions to party committees – and it preserved the legal firewall that bars campaigns from coordinating directly with the outside groups now empowered to spend millions on their behalf.
That's where Rove and Gillespie come in. As free-agent strategists, they are in a unique position to skirt such prohibitions and coordinate all parts of the GOP – both inside and outside the official party structure – because they're not officially in charge of any of it. In the run-up to November, they will be the ones ensuring that the many tentacles of the court-sanctioned shadow party – from startups like American Crossroads to stalwarts like the National Rifle Association – operate in concert. "They will be making sure that everybody is expending themselves properly, as opposed to duplicating efforts or working at cross-purposes," says Mary Matalin, who served with Rove in the Bush White House. "That's something that the committees and the campaigns really don't do – legally cannot do."
As demonstrated by the big-money meeting at Rove's home – first reported by the National Journal and confirmed to Rolling Stone by one of its boldface-name guests – Rove's fundraising prowess makes him the undisputed ringleader on the "independent" side of the firewall. At the same time, he continues to strategize with party officials, enabling him to coordinate the GOP's national effort with individual campaigns across the country. "Members of Congress in both chambers continue to be in touch with him," Matalin says. "Governors continue to be in touch with him. Individual races continue to be in touch with him. That's just Karl, and that's undeniable."
For the man known as Turd Blossom, it's been a treacherous, four-year climb back to the pinnacle of GOP politics. The Rove brand was tarnished in 2006, when Republicans lost control of both the House and Senate. His exit from the White House the following year was dogged by scandals, from the political firing of U.S. attorneys to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. And with his longtime enemy John McCain serving as the party's standard-bearer in 2008, Rove could only sit by and watch as the fearsome big-money machine he built over the course of a decade – his political Death Star – was blasted out of orbit by an insurgent Obama campaign powered by hundreds of millions in small-dollar donations.
This is a tale of how the empire strikes back.
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