Karl Rove goes to California GOP convention dogged by new controversy

The Sacramento BeeMarch 1, 2013 


Political consultant Karl Rove


— GOP strategist Karl Rove may be an unpopular figure among Republican volunteers, especially after launching a drive this year that tea party activists considered an attack on their brand of grassroots conservatism.

But given how far the California Republican Party has fallen, some participants at this weekend's convention in Sacramento say they need to take advice from anybody they can.

"The Republican Party in California is in a challenging time, and we'll take all the help we can get," said Jon Fleischman, a state party leader and conservative blogger.

Rove is the big-name speaker at the three-day affair that begins today at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento. More than five years since leaving former President George W. Bush's White House, the strategist continues to draw attention after launching the Conservative Victory Project in February, an effort designed to help "electable" Republicans win U.S. Senate seats next year.

Facing criticism over Republican losses last year in races in which his political action committee invested, Rove's latest move appears to cast blame on candidates whose gaffes drew attention to GOP positions on divisive issues such as abortion.

Most notably, Rove's group seemed to point the finger at failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, whose reference to "legitimate rape" in a television program impeded Republican efforts last year.

In an interview with Fox News in February, Rove said that "our donors say to us, 'Look, we don't mind giving money, but why are we backing candidates like Akin?' "

Rove said his goal with the new political action committee is to find the "most conservative candidate who can win." He insisted, "This is not tea party versus establishment."

Nonetheless, his new group has sparked concern among grass-roots Republicans and tea party officials, who fear Rove espouses an establishment view that the path to victory involves candidates with more moderate views.

The national conversation is particularly applicable to California Republicans, who find themselves without a statewide officeholder and have ceded two-thirds control of the Legislature to Democrats.

"Karl is no stranger to controversy, and his high-profile statements going into the convention mean I'm sure he'll have a lot of conversations with the party about what he's trying to do," said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger who has served in party leadership positions. "The Republican Party in California is in a challenging time, and we'll take all the help we can get."

Sal Russo, the Sacramento consultant who founded Tea Party Express, said the initial rollout of the Conservative Victory Project was disconcerting but that he had no problems with Rove's later description of the effort.

"For Republicans to be successful, they've got to have a broad coalition that includes people active in grass-roots ways like the tea party, as well as more establishment figures like Karl Rove," Russo said.

In the last report in October, Republicans accounted for 29.4 percent of registered California voters, compared with Democrats' 43.7 percent. Adding to those woes, the party faces a debt as large as $800,000, according to Jim Brulte, a Capitol operative and former inland Southern California lawmaker who stands as the prohibitive favorite to become state party chairman this weekend.

Several Republicans said Rove will speak at the convention's Saturday luncheon as a favor to longtime friend Brulte, who hopes to use this weekend as his springboard to reverse the party's slide in California. Rove's appearance may not mean much beyond that, as he appears focused on 2014 Senate races, none of which will occur in California.

Besides Rove, the speaking lineup includes conservatives such as former GOP Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and political commentator Ben Shapiro.

In 2007, Arnold Schwarzenegger famously told GOP delegates, "In movie terms, we would say we are dying at the box office. We are not filling the seats." That pronouncement did Schwarzenegger no favors with the party faithful, but six years later his assessment appears to have been accurate.

Brulte told The Bee in February that he believes the party can solve much of its problems by "blocking and tackling," or focusing on the basic political activities of voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts and recruiting good candidates at all levels.

The former legislative leader - he served as GOP head in both the Senate and Assembly - also intends to correct the party's financial problems by paying off debt and rebuilding donor networks.

While Republicans agree that solving those problems is a necessary step, they disagree on how far the party must reinvent itself to win races in blue-state California.

Celeste Greig, who heads the conservative California Republican Assembly, said, "We don't have to change our message. We just have to be more loving in how we give that message; we have to be better messengers."

She said the party needs to do a better job of recruiting minority candidates who share its views. She also said it is appropriate to continue "promoting traditional marriage" and advocating that "taxpayers should not be responsible for paying for a woman who made the wrong choices in her personal life."

But Adam Mendelsohn, a GOP consultant who served as Schwarzenegger's communications adviser, said the party has to change the message, not just the messenger.

"In many ways the party is at odds with the majority of voters and more importantly the party has alienated critical constituencies that are growing at significant rates, specifically Latinos, young voters and decline-to-state voters," he said.

Rove hasn't said what he will speak about, according to a state party spokesman, and he declined an interview request this week.

"I don't know how much impact his speech will have with the delegates," Greig said. "It has not worked before when somebody from outside has come to tell us how to run our state."

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