Karl Rove and his Crossroads GPS PAC are about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the senate — by campaigning to the left of incumbents Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan on behalf of Republican challengers Tom Cotton and Thom Tills.
So blatant is this attempt in the latest round of TV ads that the Washington Post teased Rove with a headline that taunted him as a “bleeding heart liberal.” Reporter/blogger Greg Sargent said in the story that the two ad campaigns “show Republicans once again hitting Dems from the left on entitlements.” Salon ridiculed the North Carolina ad as the “dumbest of the season” so far, and it was almost identical to one run in Arkansas a few weeks ago.
The Post and Salon are often wrong in their assessment of Republican strategies, but in this instance, they are right on the money. In the recent spots for both the Arkansas and North Carolina markets, the emphasis is on Social Security and plays on the fears that Pryor and Hagan both support raising the eligibility age for benefits. When you consider that incrementally and gradually raising the benefit age is a common sense conservative idea — and that Democrats routinely fear monger off of this very issue — this is a clear case of Rove trying to out-liberal the Democrat candidates and not just settling for the normal “Democrat lite” campaign the GOP establishment prefers.
While this shameless pandering is bad enough on its on, it is simply incomprehensible given the current mood of the country to reject big government liberalism and all things Obama. It is also the most cynical type of niche politics.
This strategy assumes that those approaching 60 or 65 in those two states do not care about ObamaCare, the VA scandal, the IRS scandal, the southern border’s erasure, Benghazi, or the fact that government is intruding into every aspect of our lives. It is dependent on these voters caring only about their particular check at the appointed age. There is no mention of Barack Obama or Harry Reid in the ads — two of the most toxic associations in those states. Firing Reid as majority leader is a compelling idea, as was firing Nancy Pelosi in 2010. Keep in mind that Hagan refused to appear on stage with Obama in Charlotte earlier this week, and now Rove’s messaging strategy is allowing her to keep her distance. Ditto for Pryor in Arkansas.
And if all of that weren’t bad enough, the ads aren’t even true. In North Carolina, Hagan was tied to raising the social security age because she had told the Raleigh News and Observer that she was “a big believer in what Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson did on their final commission.” She is in fact on record on other occasions specifically opposing raising the eligibility age. The tie with Pryor was similarly flimsy. In trying to paint the two Democrat incumbents as fiscal conservatives, Crossroads GPS is connecting dots that simply do not touch.
Which begs the question, why would the supposedly smartest strategist in the Republican Party even try? With the national zeitgeist demonstrably against Obama, his policies, his party and in fact his belief system, why wouldn’t the focus be on the fact that a vote for Hagan or Pryor is a vote for Obama and Reid? The key may lie in two parts of Rove’s background.
First, he was in the direct mail business for 19 years, and direct mail is a very micromanaged type B left brained endeavor by definition. This is who Rove is, and what he does. On a tactical level, he probably knows more about the country precinct by precinct than anyone not named Michael Barone. As a talented tactician, he is not a strategist. The two skills are not at all the same.
As such, he has never directed a campaign with a compelling big picture, all encompassing message. In the direct mail world, you find one hot button and run a sale on that item in that zip code. In politics, it means you think of every voter as a single issue voter, and you try and niche your way to 271 electoral votes or 51 Senate seats with a little abortion over here and some social security over there — and maybe some trade protectionism some other place. When you run a television campaign the way you run a direct mail message, you actually damage your party’s ability to put together a coherent message.
Another tell is Rove’s reliance on focus group data, which was certainly true in his failed 2012 efforts. Focus groups by their very definition — they last a couple hours — cannot possibly judge the effectiveness of a campaign message over a period of weeks or months. And yet, this is precisely what Rove and Frank Luntz and Haley Barbour rely on them to do. Conversely, there’s no way to explain a conservative message in a couple of hours either, so naturally the focus group data leads to shallow and more moderate messaging. It’s a guaranteed fail for the conservative message.
Which could explain why Rove is running to the left of Democrats in some of the most vital Senate races in the nation, in states that voted for Romney no less.
The author is a contributor to Breitbart, American Thinker and Newsmax TV, is author of Amazon best -seller WTF? How Karl Rove and the Establishment Lost…Again.