Others in the Romney campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity, were bitter that the super PACs didn’t do more to defend the Republican nominee and his business record, particularly in the late summer, when the campaign had run through its own primary-season funding.
“We didn’t have any air cover,” lamented one senior adviser.
That, Rove suggested, was the result of a missed signal.
The law forbids super PACs from coordinating with candidates, so it sets up an interaction that Rove compares to playing bridge, a game in which players make their moves based on cues from their partners.
“We can’t talk to the campaigns,” he said. “But we’ve got to understand what the candidate’s message is by closely following their public statements and campaign activities, do a lot of research to understand what the weaknesses of their opponents are, and read the tea leaves.”
In July, after Obama and his allies began pounding Romney’s record at the private equity firm Bain Capital, Crossroads spent $9.3 million on ads in nine states, in which a female narrator asked: “What happened to Barack Obama? The press and even Democrats say his attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record are misleading, unfair and untrue.”
The response from the Romney campaign? Radio silence, which the Crossroads team read to mean the strategists in Boston did not believe engaging on that issue was important. So Crossroads quit running the spots.
Another lapse, in the view of some, was Crossroads’s failure to air positive ads that would acquaint voters with Romney’s biography and his achievements.
“They ran basically the same ad over and over. They were working from a theory of the case that turned out to be extraordinarily flawed,” said Obama adviser Anita Dunn. “Their theory was that making it a referendum on Obama’s stewardship of the economy was all they had to do.”
Rove’s reputation for seeing the Next Big Thing in politics goes back to the late 1970s, when he arrived in Texas to set up a direct-mail operation. At the time, Republicans held only one statewide elected office; when he left in 2001, Republicans were in all 29 of them — and most of those officials had at one time or another been Rove’s clients.
When Rove started touting the prospects of George W. Bush in the late 1980s, the future governor and president was a failed oilman with little more than his famous last name going for him. Rove sold his business and moved to Washington with Bush, becoming so instrumental in his 2004 reelection that the president memorably dubbed him “the architect.”
The idea for Crossroads was born shortly after the 2008 election, when Rove wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that the Republicans had no equivalent to the alliance of organized labor and liberal interest groups that had spent $194 million on independent advertising for Democrats during the previous two years.
The next day, Rove recalled, he heard from former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie, who said, “Great idea. What are we going to do about it?”
As they talked to potential donors, Rove said, they realized “there was just a generalized sense that too much of this kind of activity was basically of, by and for the consultants. Donors said, ‘Consultants set these things up, pay a commission to fundraisers, hire themselves to do the work and pay themselves too much.’ ”
“Major donors said, ‘We write checks to these groups, but we’re not enthusiastic, given how they are going about their business,’ ” Rove said.
He and Gillespie also began sounding out the Senate Republican leadership, which recommended Law, a former aide to Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to run it. The two talked him into the job, though it meant that Law had to leave a far more lucrative post as general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In January 2010, the Supreme Court lifted the restrictions on political contributions by corporations and unions, a move that campaign finance experts say also spawned the growth of super PACs, by giving a green light to big contributions from individuals. Rove insists that Crossroads could and would have happened even without that decision.
In April, Rove and Gillespie invited representatives of 18 conservative groups to a lunch of chicken pot pie at Rove’s Weaver Terrace home and unveiled their idea for a coordinated effort.
“You could tell there was a lot of skepticism,” Rove recalled. “It was palpable.”
That was until they met again the following month and, at Law’s suggestion, passed around their $45 million budget. They explained which Senate races they wanted to become involved in, their polling budget and the amount of advertising they could buy.
“It was, like, jaw dropping. You could just sort of see people saying, ‘What is going on?’ But it helped set in motion a wonderful collegial process,” Rove said.
In the 2010 midterm election, “we were able to make sure we weren’t running ads on top of each other. We were coordinating on message. We arrived at an agreed-upon list of congressional races in priority order,” he recalled.
They tried running a get-out-the-vote operation in Las Vegas that year, Rove said, but discovered they couldn’t do it as economically or efficiently as a political party could.
Rove boasts that Crossroads remains an efficient operation.
He noted it has a relatively small staff of 19 and said it pays its ad makers only 3 percent of the amount spent, the bottom in an industry where 10 and 15 percent fees used to be common. Ninety-five cents out of every dollar that Crossroads spends “goes onto the target,” he said.
And his wealthy donors? “They all went into this eyes wide open,” Rove said, “and their attitude is, beat them next time.”
Alice Crites and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.