How The Civil War Between Karl Rove And The Tea Party Could Cost Republicans The Senate

Think of the brewing Republican civil war between establishment-types like Karl Rove and right-wing Tea Party activists as a bullfight.

Initially, in 2009-10, Rove and establishment Republicans were scared of this new, large group that had entered the ring. It was unruly, unrefined. As time progressed, though, Rove came to see its strength and the way it brought in crowds. It moved quickly. It attacked relentlessly. However, the more Rove waved his red flag in an attempt to win contests for his side, the more his sparring partner became enraged. By 2013, Rove had made his decision: this group was too unpredictable to be dealt with. It was time to end things before he and his party got gored.

That’s why Rove announced this week, to much Tea Party consternation, that he was forming a new group—the Conservative Victory Project—to try to undermine far-right candidates who might appeal to Republican primary voters, but would get trounced in a general election. In at least seven races over the past two election cycles, Tea Party candidates prevailed over establishment types in Republican Senate primaries: Todd Akin in Missouri (2012), Sharron Angle in Nevada (2010), Ken Buck in Colorado (2010), Linda McMahon in Connecticut (2010 and 2012), Richard Mourdock in Indiana (2012), and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (2010).

Unfortunately for establishment Republicans, winning a bullfight is easier said than done.

Like a cornered animal, many Tea Partiers are wildly lashing back. On Thursday, FreedomWorks emailed their list accusing Rove of “working in tandem” with President Obama “to silence grassroots conservatives in the freedom movement.” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) also emailed supporters to declare that “Nobody can bully me out of running for the U.S. Senate, not even Karl Rove and his hefty war chest.” Citizens United president David Bossie simply offered, “The civil war has begun.”

To a certain extent, this conservative reaction is expected. When Tea Party groups think of contested Republican primaries, they don’t think of Akin and Mourdock. They think of some of the right wing’s most beloved figures, like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), who defeated establishment Republicans and won the general election. On the other hand, those Akin and Mourdock group of losses are the difference between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

That dynamic could play out again in 2014, in what could otherwise be a banner year for Senate Republicans. Of the 33 seats up for election, 20 are currently held by Democrats and 13 by the GOP. Republicans likely need to pick up six seats to win a majority, but their chances in at least five races—Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and West Virginia—are already being threatened by establishment-Tea Party fighting.

Tea Party groups aren’t exactly lining up, baby duck-style, behind Rove as he tries to shepherd electable candidates through these races. As Politico writes, some are even threatening to back third-party candidates if Rove’s picks prevail in the primary:

If tea-party-backed candidates lose GOP primaries after they’re attacked by Rove’s group, the Tea Party Express might support them as third-party candidates, suggested the group’s founder Sal Russo. His group has spent $17 million in the past two election cycles and is credited with boosting a pair of 2010 Senate candidates to GOP primary victories only to see them lose general elections that Rove and his allies deemed winnable.

“We discourage our people from supporting third-party candidates by saying ‘that’s a big mistake. We shouldn’t do that’,” he said. “But if the position [Rove’s allies] take is rule or ruin — well, two can play that game. And if we get pushed, we’re not going to be able to keep the lid on that.”

If the conservative vote gets split between Republicans and third-party candidates, Democrats might not just hold the Senate, they could increase their majority.