It could all come down to Colorado.
That’s according to Republican strategist Karl Rove, who called Colorado “the quintessential swing state” and laid out a scenario to a group of Republicans in Denver that depicted the state as crucial to defeating President Barack Obama next year.
“I hate to tell you, but you’re ground zero,” he said. “In 2012, as goes Colorado, so goes the nation. You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Rove briefed about 100 Republicans during a lunchtime fundraiser on Wednesday at the Brown Palace Hotel. Donors paid between $65 and $250 apiece to hear the legendary operative’s take on the upcoming election. That night, he spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner thrown by the El Paso County Republicans in Colorado Springs.
Asked at the luncheon how Republicans can prevail, Rove said it was a matter of sticking to principles. “Does anybody think our candidates won last fall by standing up and sounding like Democrats?” he wondered. “No.”
He said Republicans have a clear path to victory: “Not tear ourselves up, get a candidate who can win, keep focused on the big issues — the economy, jobs, the failure of the stimulus, deficit and debt spending, Obamacare — and have a candidate who’s willing to say the hard truths to the American people. They’re at a moment where they want to hear it. But if we get up there and weasel around on it, or we don’t show courage defending bold and necessary steps, (voters will) be dispirited and walk away.”
Obama, he said, has made it easier for a Republican challenger. “He’s a one-trick pony. You can’t run as a centrist and turn around and govern like a liberal and then go back to the American people and say, ‘I’m a centrist.’”
Surveying the unsettled line-up of potential Republican presidential nominees, Rove confessed that he couldn’t predict who would emerge.
“We’re in a unique election,” he said. “We are used to having a front-runner.” He said it’s highly unusual that a candidate hasn’t emerged from the current field of Obama challengers
“You have to go back to 1951 to find an election in which there was no Republican front-runner in the presidential election like we have this year,” he said, noting that when he ran President George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, the Texas governor had a commanding lead in the polls this far from that election.
“But, heck, all these (current) candidates, if they’re lucky, are stuck around 18, 19, 20 (percent in the polls). So there’s no frontrunner, and that makes us a little uncomfortable. I think it’s a healthy thing,” he said, pointing out that Democrats benefited by having a lengthy primary battle in the last presidential election. The 2008 fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton energized Democrats, helped recruit more volunteers, generated more coverage and helped make Obama a better candidate in the general election, he said.
Rove briefly discussed his role raising unprecedented sums of cash for the gigantic American Crossroads political action committee, which he said takes about one third of his time and is performed on a strictly volunteer basis.
“Our goal is to raise $120 million,” he said and then described how he goes about doing that. “I walk into offices and ask people to give me a check for a million bucks — that’s one weird experience,” he said with a chuckle. He added that he was recently in Houston and obtained such a check from a donor, but that it helped being able to say he’d paid his own plane fare and wasn’t getting any of the contribution for himself.
But all the money in the world won’t win the election, he told the Republicans.
“We will not win unless all the traditional battleground states have one hell of a get-out-the-vote operation. Without it, we’re not going to win. We can have the greatest candidate, and the greatest media, and sufficient funds in the independent expenditure efforts for the fanciest TV ads you’ve ever seen, and if they beat us on the ground game, we lose. Because in a close contest it makes that kind of difference — and it will be a close contest, don’t kid yourself.”
Before the luncheon, Rove attended a closed-door discussion on political strategy with about a dozen of the state’s top Republicans, including state Republican Chairman Ryan Call, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, House Speaker Frank McNulty and home builder magnate Larry Mizel.
Here’s how Rove described an election map that hinges on Colorado’s nine electoral votes:
First, considering the 2008 map of states won by Obama and Republican John McCain, he said Republicans start with 14 more electoral votes due to reapportionment because states that went to Obama lost that many House members to solidly Republican states.
Then throw in 39 electoral votes from Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina, states carried by Obama that Democrats hadn’t won since 1976 or 1964. He was confident those states will return to the fold in 2012, despite unprecedented attention from Democrats, including plans to hold the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
“No way in heck,” Rove declared. “They can hold their stupid convention there, but it ain’t gonna have an impact.” He pointed to a study that shows holding a convention in a state doesn’t help win it for the party’s presidential nominee. (Democrats took aim at the Rocky Mountain West in 2008, holding their convention in Denver. Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since 1992.)
The next keys to a Republican win are the states of Florida and Ohio, which Obama won narrowly in 2008. “We can win those both back,” Rove said. “We do that, guess how many states we need to win that Obama carried last time to win the presidency? One.”
He rattled off a list of swing states beginning with Colorado.
“I’d like you to be that one,” he said. “It really would be nice.”
Rove also shared his thoughts about the role of the Tea Party movement, saying Republicans should look beyond the various groups formed under the banner and, instead, pay attention to the “broader sentiment that gave rise to the Tea Parties themselves.” Too much focus on the individual Tea Party manifestations could lead Republicans to miss the broader, underlying attitudes.
“A lot of them are not political,” he said. “A lot of them in the Tea Party movement do not want to be an adjunct to the Republican Party — they want to be an educational group that stands up for big principles and keeps the feet of politicians from both parities to the flames over these issues.”
Rove was introduced by Stapleton, a Bush cousin, who called the strategist “almost a member of my family.”
He recounted being present for a fateful phone call from Rove on Election Day 2000, when Stapleton was working out at a University of Texas gymnasium with his father and Bush.
“Nobody interrupts President Bush during a workout,” he cracked, but Bush took the call from Rove. While they were trying to keep their minds off the impending election results, he said, “Karl called and said, bad news, workout’s over. And that was the end of that, and Karl and the president embarked on quite an adventure.” Rove had delivered the news that the state of Florida was up for grabs, which would consume the country for the next 37 days.
Call, who took office in late March, told the crowd things were going well.
“Having been on the job for only about six weeks, I can tell you we’re making tremendous progress,” he said. The state party, he said, was raising money, recruiting candidates for the 2012 and 2014 elections, and “making sure our party is once again — and can reclaim that mantle of being — the party of ideas and the party of principle.”