Gingrich, Rove and the fight for the Republican Party

Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove's recent tussle is really a fight for control of the GOP's future. A look at what they both say they want.

Wednesday morning, Newt Gingrich loosed a withering critique of Karl Rove’s "Conservative Victory Project" in an appearance on “CBS This Morning,” breaking wide open in public for the first time divisions broiling in the Republican Party.

After weeks of criticism over the Rove venture, the former speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate piled on, echoing an editorial he penned in the conservative magazine Human Events and saying, “We don’t want to become a party where a handful of political bosses gather up from billionaires, in order to destroy candidates they don’t like.”

Related: Gingrich: GOP failing to grasp new demographics

The exchange is the latest shot in the heated jostling for power between the conservative and moderate blocks of the party. The two factions both profess that they are vying to correct the failures of the last election cycle. Rove’s Conservative Victory Project, which touts the “Buckley rule” of supporting the most electable conservative candidate as its guiding principle, has been widely panned, especially by Gingrich, as a misguided attack on the conservative wing at a time when the party should be addressing outdated campaign tactics and messaging to Latino voters.

“There is a war amongst the families, and it’s got to happen every few years,” said David Bozell, executive director of ForAmerica, a conservative PAC. “[But] no one likes having a gun pointed at their head. … The Republican establishment wants to weed out the conservative wing of the party, but they wouldn’t be the majority in the House without them.”

Rove has rebuffed the idea that he is attempting to squelch the conservative wing. “I don’t want a fight,” he said during an interview on Fox News. “This is not Tea Party versus establishment.”

“Tensions are going to occur during a void of power,” said Ron Bonjean, a strategist who was an informal adviser to the Romney campaign. “What you have is a battle of pragmatists versus purists — those who want the most conservative candidate — those who want the most conservative candidate who can win.”

But as much as the recent spat over the Conservative Victory Project may be a question of ideology, it is also a struggle to address the strategic missteps that have dogged Republicans in recent years. There is a worry that Rove’s venture might distract from efforts to address the deficient ground game, failure to capitalize on new technology, and flawed messaging that plagued the GOP in the last election.

“I think it’s useful to have an organization to counter the Tea Party,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist, “but it has to be an organizing organization.” The Obama campaign outmaneuvered Republicans in organizing and identifying voters, he claimed, and “any strategy based on running campaign ads is doomed.”

The wide skepticism toward the Conservative Victory Project also reflects Rove’s tarnished guru status.

“He’s got a donor backlash, and he’s got an activists backlash,” said a prominent Republican donor, speaking to Politico. American Crossroads, Rove’s super PAC, failed to support any winning candidates in the last election, according to analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, and only 1.29 percent of its war chest was spent opposing candidates who lost.

That poor showing, coupled with the low approval ratings for congressional Republicans, has also made the establishment voice less compelling. “I don’t think anything coming out of Washington is going to be very popular with voters back home,” said Feehery.

One of the few prominent conservative defenders of Rove’s effort is Marco Rubio, who argued that both Rove and the Tea Party “have a place in American politics.”

“There are always going to be goofball candidates, whichever side you fall on,” said Bozell. “Karl Rove’s new outfit won’t prevent that.”

Parties from both camps have admitted that Republicans need to take a hard look at how they’re making their case to voters — especially Latino voters — if they hope to remain a viable force. Mitt Romney won only 29 percent of the Hispanic vote — a decline of four points from the last election.

“The biggest challenge we had is that we lost among people who felt that we did not care about their problems,” said Bonjean. “When you start focusing on principles and rhetoric that are outside of what most Americans care about every day, you’re in trouble.”

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