Karl Rove in a Corner

Karl Rove is at his most formidable when running close races, and his skills would be notable even if he used no extreme methods. But he does use them. His campaign history shows his willingness, when challenged, to employ savage tactics
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It is the close races that establish the reputations of great political strategists, and few have ever been closer than the 2000 presidential election. From the tumult of the lengthy recount, the absentee-ballot dispute, the charges of voter fraud, and, ultimately, the Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush emerged victorious by a margin of 537 votes in Florida—enough to elevate him to the presidency, and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, to the status of legend.

But the 2000 election was not Rove's closest race. That had come earlier, and serves as a greater testament to his skill. In 1994 a group called the Business Council of Alabama appealed to Rove to help run a slate of Republican candidates for the state supreme court. This would not have seemed a plum assignment to most consultants. No Republican had been elected to that court in more than a century. But the council was hopeful, in large part because Rove had faced precisely this scenario in Texas several years before, and had managed to get elected, in rapid succession, a Republican chief justice and a number of associate justices, and was well on his way to turning an all-Democratic court all Republican. Rove took the job.

The most important candidate among the four he would run that year was a retired judge and Alabama institution by the name of Perry O. Hooper, of whom it is still fondly remarked that in the lean years before Rove arrived he practically constituted the state's Republican Party by himself. A courtly man with an ornery streak and a stately head of white hair, Hooper seemed typecast for the role of southern chief justice, a role he hoped to wrest from the popular Democratic incumbent, Ernest "Sonny" Hornsby.

At the time, judicial races in Alabama were customarily low-key affairs. "Campaigning" tended to entail little more than presenting one's qualifications at a meeting of the bar association, and because the state was so staunchly Democratic, sometimes not even that much was required. It was not uncommon for a judge to step down before the end of his term and handpick a successor, who then ran unopposed.

All that changed in 1994. Rove brought to Alabama a formula, honed in Texas, for winning judicial races. It involved demonizing Democrats as pawns of the plaintiffs' bar and stoking populist resentment with tales of outrageous verdicts. At Rove's behest, Hooper and his fellow Republican candidates focused relentlessly on a single case involving an Alabama doctor from the richest part of the state who had sued BMW after discovering that, prior to delivery, his new car had been damaged by acid rain and repainted, diminishing its value. After a trial revealed this practice to be widespread, a jury slapped the automaker with $4 million in punitive damages. "It was the poster-child case of outrageous verdicts," says Bill Smith, a political consultant who got his start working for Rove on these and other Alabama races. "Karl figured out the vocabulary on the BMW case and others like it that point out not just liberal behavior but outrageous decisions that make you mad as hell."

Throughout the summer the Republican candidates barnstormed the state, invoking the decision at every stop as an example of "jackpot justice" perpetuated by "wealthy personal-injury trial lawyers"—phrases developed by Rove that have since been widely adopted. To channel anger over such verdicts toward the incumbent Democratic justices, Rove highlighted their long-standing practice of soliciting campaign donations from trial lawyers—just as Republicans (which Rove did not say) solicit them from business interests. One particularly damaging ad run by the Hooper campaign was a fictionalized scene featuring a lawyer receiving an unwanted telephone solicitation from an unseen Chief Justice Hornsby, before whom, viewers were given to understand, the lawyer had a case pending. The ad, and the unseemly practices on which it was based, drew national attention from Tom Brokaw and NBC's Nightly News.

The attacks began to have the desired effect. Judicial races that no one had expected to be competitive suddenly narrowed, and media attention—especially to Hooper's race after the "dialing for dollars" ad—became widespread. Then Rove turned up the heat. "There was a whole barrage of negative attacks that came in the last two weeks of our campaign," says Joe Perkins, who managed Hornsby's campaign along with those of the other Democrats Rove was working against. "In our polling I sensed a movement and warned our clients."

Newspaper coverage on November 9, the morning after the election, focused on the Republican Fob James's upset of the Democratic Governor Jim Folsom. But another drama was rapidly unfolding. In the race for chief justice, which had been neck and neck the evening before, Hooper awoke to discover himself trailing by 698 votes. Throughout the day ballots trickled in from remote corners of the state, until at last an unofficial tally showed that Rove's client had lost—by 304 votes. Hornsby's campaign declared victory.

Rove had other plans, and immediately moved for a recount. "Karl called the next morning," says a former Rove staffer. "He said, 'We came real close. You guys did a great job. But now we really need to rally around Perry Hooper. We've got a real good shot at this, but we need to win over the people of Alabama.'" Rove explained how this was to be done. "Our role was to try to keep people motivated about Perry Hooper's election," the staffer continued, "and then to undermine the other side's support by casting them as liars, cheaters, stealers, immoral—all of that." (Rove did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)

The campaign quickly obtained a restraining order to preserve the ballots. Then the tactical battle began. Rather than focus on a handful of Republican counties that might yield extra votes, Rove dispatched campaign staffers and hired investigators to every county to observe the counting and turn up evidence of fraud. In one county a probate judge was discovered to have erroneously excluded 100 votes for Hooper. Voting machines in two others had failed to count all the returns. Mindful of public opinion, according to staffers, the campaign spread tales of poll watchers threatened with arrest; probate judges locking themselves in their offices and refusing to admit campaign workers; votes being cast in absentia for comatose nursing-home patients; and Democrats caught in a cemetery writing down the names of the dead in order to put them on absentee ballots.

As the recount progressed, the margin continued to narrow. Three days after the election Hooper held a press conference to drive home the idea that the election was being stolen. He declared, "We have endured lies in this campaign, but I'll be damned if I will accept outright thievery." The recount stretched on, and Hooper's campaign continued to chip away at Hornsby's lead. By November 21 one tally had it at nine votes.

The race came down to a dispute over absentee ballots. Hornsby's campaign fought to include approximately 2,000 late-arriving ballots that had been excluded because they weren't notarized or witnessed, as required by law. Also mindful of public relations, the Hornsby campaign brought forward a man who claimed that the absentee ballot of his son, overseas in the military, was in danger of being disallowed. The matter wound up in court. "The last marching order we had from Karl," says a former employee, "was 'Make sure you continue to talk this up. The only way we're going to be successful is if the Alabama public continues to care about it.'"

Initially, things looked grim for Hooper. A circuit-court judge ruled that the absentee ballots should be counted, reasoning that voters' intent was the issue, and that by merely signing them, those who had cast them had "substantially complied" with the law. Hooper's lawyers appealed to a federal court. By Thanksgiving his campaign believed he was ahead—but also believed that the disputed absentee ballots, from heavily Democratic counties, would cost him the election. The campaign went so far as to sue every probate judge, circuit clerk, and sheriff in the state, alleging discrimination. Hooper continued to hold rallies throughout it all. On his behalf the business community bought ads in newspapers across the state that said, "They steal elections they don't like." Public opinion began tilting toward him.

The recount stretched into the following year. On Inauguration Day both candidates appeared for the ceremonies. By March the all-Democratic Alabama Supreme Court had ordered that the absentee ballots be counted. By April the matter was before the Eleventh Federal Circuit Court. The byzantine legal maneuvering continued for months. In mid-October a federal appeals-court judge finally ruled that the ballots could not be counted, and ordered the secretary of state to certify Hooper as the winner—only to have Hornsby's legal team appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which temporarily stayed the case. By now the recount had dragged on for almost a year.

When I went to visit Hooper, not long ago, we sat in the parlor of his Montgomery home as he described the denouement of Karl Rove's closest race. "On the afternoon of October the nineteenth," Hooper recalled, "I was in the back yard planting five hundred pink sweet Williams in my wife's garden, and she hollered out the back door, 'Your secretary just called—the Supreme Court just made a ruling that you're the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court!'" In the final tally he had prevailed by just 262 votes. Hooper smiled broadly and handed me a large photo of his swearing-in ceremony the next day. "That Karl Rove was a very impressive fellow," he said.

In the decade since, the recount and the court battle have faded into obscurity, save for one brief period, late in 2000, when they suddenly became relevant again. Almost as if to remind Al Gore's campaign of Rove's skill when faced with a recount, the case was revived in a flurry of legal briefs in the Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore—including one filed by the State of Alabama on behalf of George W. Bush.

This summer, with the presidential race looking as if it would be every bit as close as the one in 2000, I spent several months examining the narrowest races in Karl Rove's career to better understand the tendencies and tactics of the man who will arguably have more influence than anyone else over how this election unfolds. Rove has already generated a remarkable body of literature, including several notable books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. I spoke to many of Rove's former candidates and their opponents; to his past and present colleagues and the people who faced off against them; and to political insiders and journalists—primarily in Texas and Alabama, where Rove has done the majority of his campaign work. I learned much about Rove that hasn't made it into the public sphere.

One of the striking things about his record is how few close races Rove has been involved with—primarily because he usually wins in a walk. In the relatively rare instances when he is in a tight race, he tends to win that, too. Although Rove first rose to political prominence as a specialist in direct-mail fundraising (and worked on hundreds of races in that capacity), mail is only one facet of a campaign, and rarely the deciding factor. So I focused on races in which Rove was the primary strategist, and therefore in a position at least roughly analogous to the one he holds in this presidential race. The last strategist before Rove to win a Republican presidential election was his former colleague Lee Atwater, who by the time of the 1988 campaign had a career record of 28—4. To my knowledge, no one has calculated such a figure for Rove. As far as I can determine, in races he has run for statewide or national office or Congress, starting in 1986, Rove's career record is a truly impressive 34—7.

The mythologizing portrayals of a "boy genius" that characterized so much media coverage of Rove after 2000, and especially after the Republicans' triumphant sweep in the midterm elections, struck me as sorely out of date when I began this project. The Bush Administration was suffering through the worst of the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the President's approval ratings were plummeting. Clearly, there are many differences between the circumstances in which Rove has been victorious in the past and those he faces now. But that is no reason to discount his record. By any standard he is an extremely talented political strategist whose skill at understanding how to run campaigns and motivate voters would be impressive even if he used no extreme tactics. But he does use them. Anyone who takes an honest look at his history will come away awed by Rove's power, when challenged, to draw on an animal ferocity that far exceeds the chest-thumping bravado common to professional political operatives. Having studied what happens when Karl Rove is cornered, I came away with two overriding impressions. One was a new appreciation for his mastery of campaigning. The other was astonishment at the degree to which, despite all that's been written about him, Rove's fiercest tendencies have been elided in national media coverage.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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