As expected, American Crossroads, the largest Republican super PAC during the 2012 general election, has announced that it will also become a player in Republican Senate primaries in the upcoming cycle. The Karl Rove-led group explained, via its president Steven Law:
There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected. We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.
The New York Times provided a more provocative spin:
The biggest donors in the Republican Party are financing a new group to recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts who Republican leaders worry could complicate the party’s efforts to win control of the Senate.
The merits of American Crossroads’ move turn on the difference between these two descriptions of its mission. If, as the Times says, the purpose is to protect incumbents from all challenges from “far right conservatives” and “Tea Party enthusiasts,” then the project is ill-conceived. So-called “far right conservatives” and/or Tea Party backed candidates have shown they can prevail even, when conditions are right, in non-Red States, and then become good conservative Senators (see Ron Johnson in Wisconsin).
But American Crossroads says its purpose is not to protect incumbents but rather to support the most conservative candidate who can win (i.e., to apply the “Buckley rule”). That project makes sense, at least in theory.
I don’t mean to suggest that Karl Rove and his fellows at Crossroads will be able infallibly to apply “the Buckley rule.” Rove’s track record is mixed, as are the track records of other national organizations such as the Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express. But American Crossroads will, I believe, have a built-in “sagacity advantage” over groups that simply reject or ignore “the Buckley rule,” as the Tea Party Express seemed to do when it supported Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 Delaware primary.
Beyond that, we will have to wait and see whether American Crossroads (1) is true to its mission statement and (2) makes good judgments in practice. As a general matter, though, I find its intervention in GOP Senate primaries no less appropriate than that of other national organizations such as the aforementioned Club for Growth and Tea Party Express.
My hope is that the events of the past 8 years have made each of these groups wiser, and that the expression during GOP primaries of their disparate points of view (hopefully not as disparate as the New York Times supposes) will produce better Senate candidates.