In the aftermath of the 2012 election, the nation's big money donors may be reassessing their "investments" -- particularly those managed by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
This election was fought on razor-thin margins. An estimated $1.41 billion in disclosed outside spending and an unknown amount of undisclosed "dark money" was spent to sway a relatively small number of undecided voters. The vast majority of that spending went to help Republicans (or attack their Democratic opponents), and given the outcome of Tuesday's election, that money was largely wasted.
Republican mastermind Karl Rove was responsible for most of the damage. Together, his SuperPAC American Crossroads and 501(c)(4) "dark money" group Crossroads GPS reported spending $175 million (when undisclosed spending is taken into account, the actual total may be as high as $390 million), but accomplished very little of consequence. A post-election analysis by the Sunlight Foundation found that very few of the candidates supported by Rove's groups emerged victorious on Tuesday. Just 1.29% of the $104 million spent by American Crossroads backed a winning candidate. Crossroads GPS fared slightly better, achieving a 14.4% return on its $70 million in reported spending.
"The billionaire donors I hear are livid," one Republican operative told The Huffington Post. "There is some holy hell to pay. Karl Rove has a lot of explaining to do ... I don't know how you tell your donors that we spent $390 million and got nothing."
Unprecedented $400 Million+ to Deny Obama 1 State and Buy 2 Senate Seats
Rove was the chief strategist of George Bush's 2000 and 2004 political campaigns and was often referred to as "Bush's Brain." He was also the mastermind of the successful Republican Congressional campaigns of those years, when the GOP secured both the Senate and the House. In 2010, Rove capitalized on the Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited fundraising for Super PACs, and was credited with taking the House back and reducing the Democrat majority in the Senate. Now his reputation for genius is in jeopardy.
In this cycle, Rove moved quickly to repeat his 2010 success, and traveled the country convincing individual high-rollers to spend more than ever before. But he accomplished far less. The losses were so significant even real estate tycoon Donald Trump tweeted that the group had "blow[n] $400 million this cycle."
The vast majority of funds spent by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS were invested in races they ultimately lost: the presidential race (where they spent at least $110 million), as well as Senate races in Virginia (at least $10 million spent trying to elect George Allen), Florida (at least $7.7 million spent helping Connie Mack), Wisconsin (at least $7.3 million to elect Tommy Thompson), Ohio (at least $6.3 million to help Josh Mandel), Indiana (at least $3.3 million on Richard Mourdock), and Montana (at least $3.2 million on Dennis Rehberg).
Their involvement in the presidential election, at best, denied President Obama North Carolina, the only state where Crossroads ran ads and Obama won the vote in 2008, but failed to win in 2012.
Crossroads GPS only found success in Nevada, where they spent $6.6 million helping Dean Heller keep his U.S. Senate seat, as well as six House races where they spent $300,000 to $1 million each. Of the 23 races targeted by GPS (12 Senate and 11 House races), only 7 ultimately were decided in GPS's favor. The 14.4% return on investment is likely much lower once its undisclosed spending is taken into account.
American Crossroads' only success was with the $990,000 it spent to help elect Republican Deb Fischer over Democrat Bob Kerrey, though the election had been moving in Fischer's favor since April. The group also backed a handful of successful House candidates.
Americans for Job Security, a 501(c)(6) "trade organization" that is headquartered in the same office building as Rove's Crossroads groups, spent at least $15 million attacking Obama that in some states appeared to have been coordinated with American Crossroads. As with the Crossroads groups, only their investment in North Carolina eventually paid off.
Some have attributed Rove's utter failures to the fact that his groups spent too much money on TV ads rather than on get out the vote efforts and other forms of "on the ground" campaigning, and that the ads they did run were described as "stupid" and "generic," over-saturating the airwaves well beyond the point of diminishing returns.
On Thursday of last week, Rove made phone calls to his largest donors providing an election postmortem. He told Fox News that "if groups like Crossroads were not active, this race would have been over a long time ago. President Obama came out of the box on May 15 with $215 million of advertising over a 2½-month period, designed to demonize Mitt Romney."
Not all Republican strategists agree with Rove's assessment. Some, like conservative Christian activist L. Brent Bozell believe they could do far more with a small fraction of Rove's millions: "Right now there is stunned disbelief that Republicans fared so poorly after all the money they invested," Bozell told Bloomberg News. "If I had 1/100th of Karl Rove's money, I would have been more productive than he was." Republican advisor Rick Tyler attacked Rove in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "They lost every race. It was a colossal failure," he said. "They went out with their power points and convinced people to give money, but it was as pathetic a performance as I've ever seen...Clearly, Rove has too much control over the purse strings."