Rove vs. King

Yesterday Kathleen Geier noted the most interesting political story of the weekend: the rapidly escalating war of words on the Right between so-called “Establishment” Republicans led by Karl Rove and Tea Party “Conservatives” as represented by past and future Senate candidates deemed “undisciplined.” The immediate flash-point is a gratuitous slap at U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a potential candidate for Tom Harkin’s open Senate seat next year, by American Crossroads president Steven Law by way of explaining to the New York Times‘ Jeff Zeleny the purpose of a new Conservative Victory Project the group is unveiling:

The group’s plans, which were outlined for the first time last week in an interview with Mr. Law, call for hard-edge campaign tactics, including television advertising, against candidates whom party leaders see as unelectable and a drag on the efforts to win the Senate. Mr. Law cited Iowa as an example and said Republicans could no longer be squeamish about intervening in primary fights.

“We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem,” Mr. Law said. “This is an example of candidate discipline and how it would play in a general election. All of the things he’s said are going to be hung around his neck.”

I am mystified by this gambit from Rove’s hireling. Yes, Steve King is crazy as sack of rats. But the man is an excellent retail politician back home with an intensely loyal following. If the idea of Law’s macho posturing was to intimidate King from a Senate race, it is very likely to backfire. The Iowa Republican‘s Kevin Hall explains:

Steve King is beloved by Iowa conservatives and if you go to war with him, we will go to war with you …

Telling Steve King he can’t do something is also a surefire way to get him to prove you wrong. I’m sure people like me saying he can’t win a statewide general election was enough to rile up the good Congressman. But having a so-called “conservative” group spending big bucks to attack him is likely to spur King to fight back … And he’ll have a few hundred thousand Iowa Republicans fighting alongside him …

And this is from a guy who has all but endorsed Tom Latham–the presumed Rove favorite to represent the GOP in the Iowa Senate race.

More generally, I will issue an early warning about how the MSM will once again turn this kind of intra-GOP battle over strategy and tactics–and power–into some sort of ideological struggle, with the Rovians treated as “moderates” and the Steve Kings of the world as plain old average-white-guy conservatives–you know, sort of the conservative equivalents of Barack Obama.

My own ultimate test for “extremism” is whether the person in question would be perfectly happy with a one-party dictatorship for his or her “team,” with the “other team” being silenced or perhaps hauled off to prison. Every single thing about Karl Rove’s history tells me that he would cheerfully, giddily endorse that scenario. He may consider Steve King a poor instrument for achieving that happy destination, but I doubt a country ruled by either would feel a bit differently.

So while we can all enjoy a power battle between these two men on King’s own turf, let’s don’t get fooled into calling it a “struggle for the soul of the GOP” or any such thing. That struggle ended with the final conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement in 2009, and won’t reemerge until they lose at least one more national election. But you will never hear that from folks on the Right, who have every reason, internal and external, to exaggerate their differences as they jockey for position.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.