With the RNC a shadow of its former self, the shadow party is now ascendant. Though Steele is likely to keep his post, he has been excluded from top strategy sessions on the GOP's plan to take back Congress. One of the RNC's top fundraisers quit in April, and large contributions have dried up: An audit leaked to The Washington Times revealed that the party is actually losing money on its major-donor program, spending $1.09 for every $1 raised. The RNC has devolved into the small-donor arm of the party. The average contribution: $40.
Given the discredited state of the party apparatus, donors who once gave to the RNC are now looking for a new place to put their campaign cash. "The money has not stopped coming in," says Matalin. "Donors at that level don't go away. This is a fungible business." And among the GOP's top patrons, American Crossroads is the destination of choice. "Significant people – the money people and the political people – they trust Karl, they trust Gillespie," says longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins. "They know the money will be spent well."
So what is Rove and Gillespie's plan for the $60 million that American Crossroads is raising? The money will be targeted on House and Senate races. "They're not going to go into every race," Matalin says. "They're going to go where there are opportunities that are above and beyond what the 'system' can handle. This is a terrain much bigger than anybody anticipated." In short, Rove and Gillespie want to mirror what Democrats achieved in 2008, when resources were so abundant that Obama could go for broke in must-win states like Florida and still have enough resources to target less-certain opportunities like Missouri. "Usually, toward the end of a national campaign, you've got to make hard decisions based on limited resources," Matalin says. "They want to make sure that doesn't happen in this case."
As the summit at Rove's home revealed, however, American Crossroads is just the tip of his big-money spear. Through Steven Law, the group's spending will be tightly coordinated with his former employer, the Chamber of Commerce. "Steven will always be an ally," Tom Donohue, the Chamber's president, declared in announcing Law's departure to lead Rove's project. The Chamber itself expects to spend $50 million for campaign advertising – a 40 percent increase over 2008 – in what Donohue calls "the most aggressive voter-education and issue-advocacy effort in our nearly hundred-year history."
A third group integral to Rove's plan – the American Action Network – is so closely integrated with American Crossroads that it has moved into neighboring offices two blocks from the White House. Co-founded by private-equity titan and longtime GOP operative Fred Malek, who once helped Richard Nixon target a "Jewish cabal" in the administration, AAN bills itself as an "action tank" – a think tank that will also inject money directly into federal races. It plans to raise $25 million for its campaign efforts this fall – expenditures that will be directed by a former chief of staff to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor. "It's the beginning of the future," says Rollins. "Independent expenditures will play a very, very significant role. There are no rules anymore."
Even leading advocates of election reform concede that, given the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, there is little to prevent Rove from running the whole show. Political parties are barred from coordinating specific ads with "independent" groups – but that leaves plenty of wiggle room for other forms of strategizing. And even if Rove and Co. were to cross the line, there would likely be no consequences: The Federal Election Commission, which has sole enforcement responsibility, is gridlocked by its three GOP-appointed commissioners, who consistently vote to stymie any oversight. "The existing FEC is not going to enforce the laws," says Fred Wertheimer, the founder of Democracy 21, an advocate of campaign-finance reform.
The kind of shadow orchestration that Rove is organizing is not unprecedented. Ironically, in the 2004 presidential election, Democrats tried – and failed – to counter Rove himself with the help of their own shadow committee, Americans Coming Together, which was largely underwritten by billionaire George Soros. Veterans of that effort look at Rove's machinations and see weakness rather than strength. "In this politically advantageous environment, you would think they wouldn't have to resort to such desperate measures just to figure out how to put together a campaign," says Bill Carrick, a prominent Democratic consultant. Like Rove's current plan, he says, the 2004 Democratic playbook looked great on paper but ended in bitter recriminations and finger-pointing after being hampered by sloppy execution. Without the kind of formal command-and-control structure the party apparatus can provide, Carrick says, "accountability is tough. How does this all get done in practice when you get down to a contested congressional race in New Mexico or New Hampshire or South Carolina?"
Organization is not the only stumbling block. For all of the GOP's talk about a return to small government, Rove's resurgence represents the return of deficits-don't-matter corporatism. The wealthy donors he is courting see government not as a lean, mean guarantor of free markets but as a multitrillion-dollar bailout machine. "They don't have a philosophical mooring where they care about restraining government growth," says one state GOP director. "I mean, shit, just look at the Bush administration." Rove's interest in Tea Party fanaticism, he adds, goes only as far as the ballot box. "The only part of the Rove brand really is just winning. Rove knows how to win."
Democrats, meanwhile, are betting that even a shared hostility to the party of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will not be enough to paper over the ideological gulf between Rove and the GOP's small-government base. With luck, Rove's power play could run into a Tea Party buzz saw. "I hope it's a long and bloody civil war," says one Democratic official.
To blunt the impact of Rove's corporate fundraising, Democrats introduced legislation in April that would require groups like the Chamber of Commerce to disclose their campaign donors. The measure would also force CEOs to endorse corporate campaign ads, just as politicians are required to do. "Their interest," Law fumed, "is to intimidate the business community into unilateral disarmament."
But campaign-finance experts believe that any new regulations will do little to rein in the excesses of a radically transformed electoral landscape. "We're on a parallel course here, with two very different concepts of how our democracy should function," says Wertheimer. "One is based on involving massive numbers of small donors to be the primary funders of elections. The other is based on involving massive amounts of corporate wealth to literally overwhelm our elections and dominate Washington. You couldn't have two more conflicting approaches to the way our democracy ought to function. This is going to be an enormous battle."
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.
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