For the first time in a dozen years, Karl Rove's critics smell blood.
After his electoral wipeout in November -- and motivated by years of resentment that's spilling over -- Rove's credibility within his own party is at an all-time low.
His ability to sell donors on his new endeavor, the Conservative Victory Project, took a beating with a rollout in The New York Times, the newspaper conservatives love to hate.
Just this week, a tea party group grafted his image over a Nazi in an email pitch. Newt Gingrich, who spent much of 2012 lambasting Rove and the rest of the GOP establishment, faulted Rove for trying to handpick candidates. And last week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad spoke publicly about phoning Rove to tell him his latest venture was ill-conceived.
Such open season on Rove would have been unimaginable even six months ago, as the Crossroads groups he co-founded cruised along to a $300 million fundraising goal. But that was before November, when a bad election night was capped by a bad Rove performance on Fox News -- a call heard 'round the world as he insisted the presidential race, which the cable network had just called for Barack Obama, was far from over.
He's been re-signed by Fox, which guarantees him a powerful bully pulpit going forward. But, while it might be a stretch to say he's gone from guru to goat, he will have to spend months making a case to skeptical donors, several Republican fundraisers conceded.
"He's got a donor backlash and he's got an activists backlash," said one prominent Republican donor. Several people who cut big checks to Crossroads feel burned, this person said, adding some believe Rove is letting his group off too easy with his insistence that the problem last year was bad candidates.
"This idea that he's the curator" of the Republican Party has taken a beating, said the donor. Further, the donor said -- echoing sentiments made by others -- the Times story about the Conservative Victory Project made both Crossroads and Rove a focus, as opposed to the process of picking candidates. And it set CVP up in direct opposition to another major conservative outside group, Club for Growth, that has been able to tout electoral successes.
To be sure, Rove remains a serious figure within the party -- one who a number of donors still respect immensely -- as evidenced by how few people would criticize him on the record.
Still, Gingrich's column put a fine point on a common gripe among activists about Rove's approach. Though CVP's aim is to help prevent Republicans from nominating disastrous candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, it fails to account for the fact that some establishment-preferred Senate nominees lost, too.
"In seven of the nine losing races, the Rove model has no candidate-based explanation for failure," Gingrich wrote on the conservative site Human Events in an op-ed piece. "Our problems are deeper and more complex than candidates. Handing millions to Washington-based consultants to destroy the candidates they dislike and nominate the candidates they do like is an invitation to cronyism, favoritism and corruption."
SOURCE: MAGGIE HABERMAN