White House politico Karl Rove, whose legacy as a strategist hinges on Republicans’ fate at the polls on Nov. 7, has raised more than $12 million for GOP candidates this election cycle.
The total is remarkable for a White House staffer, more than any aide has been known to raise before, and confirms Rove’s place among the most celebrated strategists in American political history.
And while Rove has raised the money to promote Republican policies by protecting the GOP majorities in Congress and building party infrastructure around the country, his personal stake in the upcoming election is undeniable.
If Republicans hang on to power, Rove’s reputation as a political genius will be secure, say political observers. But if they lose, Republicans may look back at Rove’s ambitious and unsuccessful efforts to reform Social Security and immigration policy with bitterness.
To be sure, Rove’s contribution is a drop in the bucket of what White House officials have raised for Republicans in the past 21 months.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Che-ney and first lady Laura Bush have raised a combined $239 million since the start of Bush’s second term, as of last week.
Just last week during a fundraising trip through Nevada, California, Arizona, and Colorado, Bush raised $2.36 million for four congressional candidates and one gubernatorial candidate and $1.3 million for the Republican National Committee (RNC). Also last week, Cheney raised $1.23 million for eight candidates during a swing through Wyoming, Montana, Texas, Michigan, Florida, and Virginia.
“I sure don’t know of a staff person who’s ever done it,” said a Republican strategist Charles Black of Rove’s fundraising total. “In the past some chiefs of staff did fundraisers but no one was as well-known or popular as Rove among the givers.
“He’s got an incredible winning streak going — three major election wins since 2000,” said Black, commenting on Rove’s stake in November’s outcome. “If the party were to hold both houses, he would have an unprecedented winning streak as a strategist.”
Norm Ornstein, a scholar of politics at the American Enterprise Institute, said Rove has had more impact on politics than any White House aide in recent memory.
“I can’t recall anyone who is in a staff position raising that much,” said Ed Gillespie, who served as RNC chairman for the 2004 election. “I don’t know of a cabinet secretary who has raised that much on behalf of candidates. It reflects the respect he commands in the party and reflects the Democrats’ six-year effort to demonize him.”
Adding to the personal pressure on Rove is his prediction in May that Republicans would be “just fine” in the fall.
Other political experts don’t think the GOP’s prospects are nearly so rosy.
“Rove has lost the golden touch: he didn’t deliver on Social Security reform and the president’s party has an uphill battle in this midterm. He’s going to be lucky if this doesn’t become a debacle for this party,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University who said Rove’s legacy is at stake. “If they lose control of one or both chambers, nobody is going to think Rove is such a genius.”
Rove appears to have stepped up his fundraising appearances since special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told his lawyer in June that he is no longer under investigation for leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press.
Rove’s fundraising total also shows that despite Democrats’ persistent efforts to demonize him, most recently by publicizing the number of contacts he had with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Rove remains very popular with rank-and-file conservatives.
White House officials have sought to keep Rove’s campaign activity quiet in part because of a prevailing belief that staff should stay behind the scenes and not compete for attention with Bush and Cheney. And Rove, whom Bush has nicknamed “turd blossom,” has carefully adopted a self-deprecating posture.
Rove has hit the fundraising circuit hard this election cycle, attending more events than Bush and his wife. But Bush remains by far the biggest fundraiser. He has raised more this election cycle than the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) combined.
As of last week, he had raised $185.7 million at 77 events for Republican candidates this cycle, according to an RNC official. Rove, by comparison, has raised over $12 million at 92 events. Only Cheney has attended more events, 111. The first lady has appeared at 41.
Rove has long been a lightening rod for criticism from Democrats and liberal activists. He has often been the subject of Democratic fundraising letters and stump speeches.
“Karl Rove is a key player in the Republican culture of corruption,” said Karen Finney, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, who noted that a recent House Government Reform Committee revealed frequent contacts between Rove and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Last week a senior aide to Rove, Susan Ralston, resigned because of the report.
“He is the architect of their divisive campaign tactics,” said Finney. “People are rejecting the politics of division. To a degree, the GOP, by continuing to send him out there, is trying that same old playbook. What they’re not realizing is that Americans have seen it for what it is and are rejecting it.”
But conservative Republicans don’t seem to be among the people Finney is talking about.
“Karl Rove is still the guy who can excite the base,” said West of Brown University. “When you’re raising the money, that’s the type of guy you want.”