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

Democrats who want to feel sanguine about the coming election might well find comfort in the particulars of Rove's career. Several of his usual advantages are lacking this time around, conspicuously in geography. As a direct-mail consultant, Rove worked for races across the country, in blue states as well as red. The nature of that work mostly entailed identifying conservatives and motivating them to donate money—a fine skill for one in his current position as Bush's chief strategist, but not the equivalent of running a campaign. Rove compiled his stellar record in Texas and Alabama—and, of course, in the 2000 presidential election, even if his candidate lost the popular vote. During the period in which he rose to power, both states, deeply conservative, were transitioning from a firmly Democratic electorate to a firmly Republican one. A charge frequently levied against Rove by beleaguered Democratic consultants in Texas and Alabama is that he merely "surfed the wave" of the demographic change. This ignores his political talent. It's true, though, that for most of his career Rove has enjoyed a kind of home-field advantage, and in this election he does not.

A surprising number of Rove's former colleagues believe that his unprecedented success in Texas, where for years his candidates rarely faced serious challenges, has fostered what in the boxing world would be known as a "tomato-can" syndrome. Like a heavyweight champion who lets down his guard after beating up a series of hapless "tomato-can" opponents, Rove, they fear, may have been blinded to current national realities by hubris. "I think Karl's success in Texas is almost a hindrance," a veteran strategist who worked with him in that state told me. "The rest of the country doesn't emulate Texas in terms of voting behavior. But sometimes you see his southern roots in Texas and his experience in Alabama kind of overtake him, and he seems to think the United States is one big-ass Texas."

Several consultants pointed to the issue of gay marriage, which one described as a perfect Texas wedge issue because it would attract culturally conservative Democrats in the eastern part of the state—"the rednecks," as he put it—who are normally the key to winning statewide office. But he doubted that the issue would have the same effect in the less conservative battleground states that are expected to decide this election.

Rove is also riding on less of a decisive financial advantage than the one he normally enjoys. In their book Bush's Brain, James Moore and Wayne Slater explain how Rove's success as a fundraiser provided the impetus for his move into political consulting, and how, once established in that capacity, he consolidated his power by controlling candidates' access to major donors, usually ensuring that his clients were better funded than their opponents. This enabled him to engage in what amounted to asymmetric warfare against anyone who challenged his candidates. The authors recount an anecdote in which Priscilla Owen—then a Houston judge, later a controversial Bush appointee to the federal bench—approached a rich Republican donor whose job it was to vet candidates, and explained that she was thinking about running for the Texas Supreme Court. "Have you talked to Karl Rove?" he inquired. Taking the hint, she replied, "No, but I plan to." After Rove agreed to support her, she won handily, outspending her opponent. A similar imbalance applied in 2000, when Bush outspent Gore by a wide margin. But this year John Kerry's extraordinary and unexpected ability to raise money has largely closed the gap.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the current campaign that Rove's most notable tendency in close races has been to go negative against his opponent, early and often. One of the first highlights of his career was the famously tight 1986 Texas governor's race, in which his candidate and mentor, the Republican oilman Bill Clements, sought to oust the Democratic incumbent Mark White. The race is legendary in Texas political lore for Rove's discovery that his office was bugged—news of which, coincidentally or not, distracted attention from an evening debate in which his candidate was expected to fare poorly. More pertinent to the current campaign is a strategy memo Rove wrote for his client prior to the race, which is now filed among Clements's papers in the Texas A&M University library. Quoting Napoleon, the memo says, "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack."

Though it is forever fashionable to denounce negative campaigning, every political expert understands that it can be extremely effective. Rove's career has borne this out perhaps better than any other modern political consultant's. But his very success leaves him precariously positioned if Bush stalls or founders. Once a negative course is set, it is nearly impossible to change; the perpetrator is usually stained for good. Furthermore, Rove's method is to plot out elaborate strategies well in advance of the campaign, and stick to them vigilantly. John Deardourff, Rove's media consultant for races in Texas and Alabama, says, "This rap Bush has of never changing his mind and never admitting a mistake—that's Karl! That's where it comes from." It is a tribute to Rove's strategic skill that he is so often right.

Throughout his career Rove has been able to stage-manage races to an extraordinary degree. This is possibly his least appreciated skill. The most revealing time in his career was 1994, when Rove fought more close races than in any other year, and managed to dictate the dynamic in every one of them. He pulled off highly unlikely upsets for Perry Hooper in Alabama (a race overwhelmingly about trial lawyer excesses) and George W. Bush in Texas (a race dominated by Bush's platform of welfare, juvenile-justice, tort, and public-school reform). However impressive, all but one of his races have been conducted at the state level, and thus have been comparatively insular affairs, unimpeded by the glare of the national media or a troublesome global issue like violence in Iraq—both of which could threaten Rove's ability to control this race.

In the rare instances when he has failed to set the terms of debate, Rove hasn't fared nearly so well. Four years ago, in a race to succeed Hooper, who was retiring as Alabama's chief justice, Rove lined up support from a majority of the state's important Republicans behind his candidate, an associate justice named Harold See. Like most of Rove's clients, See had an enormous financial advantage and ran a brutally negative campaign—but he was nonetheless trounced by Roy Moore, the "Ten Commandments" judge, who succeeded in making the race about religion. This loss may have helped Rove to recognize the power of religion as a political motivator: from the question of gay marriage to organizing churches for Bush, it features prominently in his playbook for the current election.

If there is any compelling reason to think that Rove may be out of his depth in this election, it is an odd lacuna in his storied career: no one I spoke with could recall his ever having to run an incumbent in a tough re-election race. This is partly a by-product of his dominance. Rove's power in Texas was such that he could essentially handpick his candidates, and once elected, they rarely lost. And he spent most of his career in the favorable terrain of the Deep South. One reason Rove was spared re-election fights is that as demographic changes swept across the South, and Republicans in Texas and Alabama began displacing Democrats, the likelihood that a Democrat could depose a sitting Republican became remote. Rove has long excelled at knocking off incumbents in tight races. Now, at last, he must defend one.

Despite all this, there are significant reasons to believe that Rove can pull it off this time. One is his prior experience in close races. Another is his preparedness and attention to detail, to which any discussion with a longtime Rove colleague invariably turns. "The thing that was most important to him was the mechanics: making certain that the campaign could block and tackle," recalls a staffer who worked for Rove's direct-mail firm in the 1980s and 1990s. Rove would typically begin a race by constructing seven-layer spreadsheets of the electoral history of a particular office, charting where votes for each candidate had originated and which groups had supplied them. In the 1980s these data led Rove to conclude that his candidates ought to target "ticket-splitters"—Texans who supported Ronald Reagan for President but voted Democratic in downballot races.

Rove's direct-mail experience had provided him with a nuanced understanding of precisely what motivates ticket-splitters. According to Karl Rove & Co. data on the 1994 Texas governor's race, Rove was aware, for instance, that households that received a single piece of mail turned out for Bush at a rate of 15.45 percent, and those that received three pieces at a rate of 50.83 percent. Turnout peaked at seven pieces (57.88 percent), after which enthusiasm for Bush presumably gave way to feelings of inundation, and support began to drop.

Rove's thirst for efficient advantage extended even to marketing. According to a former employee, rather than use costly dinners and Dallas Cowboys tickets to draw clients' attention, as other consultants did, Rove affixed antique stamps (though not valuable ones) to the weekly financial summaries he mailed to clients; he would send workers to estate sales to hunt out supplies.

When Rove arrived in Alabama, in 1994, his clients were initially puzzled as to why he was having them campaign in rural and less populated parts of the state rather than the urban areas they were accustomed to. It turned out that he had run an electoral regression analysis on each of the state's sixty-seven counties, and for efficiency's sake he put his four judicial candidates together on a bus trip to the counties with the highest percentage of ticket-splitters. "Karl got us focused on the fact that it was a matter of convincing Democratic voters who were already conservative to vote for Republican candidates," Mark Montiel, a candidate on the trip, explains, "because that was who best expressed their views."

Among Rove's other innovations was a savvy use of language, developed for speaking to the conservative base about judicial races. Candidates were to attack "liberal activist judges" and to present themselves as "people who will strictly interpret the law and not rewrite it from the bench." A former Rove staffer explained to me that the term "activist judges" motivates all sorts of people for very different reasons. If you're a religious conservative, he said, it means judges who established abortion rights or who interpret Massachusetts's equal-protection clause as applying to gays. If you're a business conservative, it means those who allow exorbitant jury awards. And in Alabama especially, the term conjures up those who forced integration. "The attraction of calling yourself a 'strict constructionist,'" as Rove's candidates did, this staffer explained, "is that you can attract business conservatives, social conservatives, and moderates who simply want a reasonable standard of justice."

As with direct mail, Rove was skilled at reaching specific voter segments with television commercials, buying air time only during programs that he believed would attract the audience he was trying to reach. In his Alabama races he was known particularly to withhold advertising from The Oprah Winfrey Show and similar afternoon programming—"trimming a media buy," as it is known in the trade. Bill Smith, who worked on a series of close races with Rove in Alabama, says, "There's a real overlap in what he specialized in professionally and what you need to do in a tight race." Whether he is seeking donors in a direct-mail fundraising campaign or manipulating a particular demographic sliver to win a close race, Rove's professional goal has been strikingly consistent: to reach the right people.

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

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