Doyle McManus: A Rove 'money bomb': The battle to win the Senate
Here's a short list of Democrats who secretly hope Mitt Romney gets his presidential campaign turned around fast and gives President Obama a run for his money: Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic Senate candidate in North Dakota; Jon Tester, the Democratic senator from Montana; and Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democratic Senate candidate in Nevada.
Why? Because they're all in close Senate races — and they're all worried about a potential flood of Republican money into their states if Romney's campaign begins to look like a losing proposition.
In the last two weeks alone, the Crossroads GPS organization advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove has spent $387,000 for television advertising in North Dakota, $615,000 in Montana and $847,000 in Nevada.
The reason is straightforward. While the conservatives' first choice would be to take the White House, of course, the Senate would be a consolation prize — and a powerful restraint on Obama if he wins a second term. And control of the Senate, now held by the Democrats, is up for grabs. Republicans need to gain only four seats to win a majority.
Up to now, Crossroads and other independent fundraising groups have spent most of their money on the presidential campaign, according to records compiled by the independent Sunlight Foundation. But the balance appears to be shifting toward Senate and House races.
At this point, Crossroads GPS and its affiliate, American Crossroads, still plan to continue spending on the presidential race, a spokesman told me. Last month, Rove told an audience of donors that his budget was $200 million for the White House race, $70 million for the Senate and $32 million for the House.
But those were only "rough projections," Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said in an email.
In public, Rove says he still thinks Romney can win. But other GOP strategists have noted that the number of undecided voters has been dwindling rapidly; by the last presidential debate, on Oct. 22, there may be few people left to persuade.
At that point, if not before, Rove and his colleagues could decide to shift their remaining money from the top of the ticket into races where it will count most, including those tight Senate contests in North Dakota, Montana and Nevada.
Campaign strategists have a term for last-minute infusions of cash: "money bombs," and Rove is in a position to throw some. American Crossroads reported last week that it had $32 million in cash on hand, with more coming in. Its allied "social welfare" organization, Crossroads GPS, is thought to have even more money, but it isn't required to disclose its financial condition until next year.
People who have talked with Rove recently (I haven't) say he's passionate when it comes to handicapping Senate races across the country and deciding where his funding organizations might tip the balance.
During the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., a reporter for Bloomberg News managed to sit in, unnoticed, on a private briefing that Rove gave to donors. The headline on her story read "Forget Mitt Romney. Karl Rove's eyes are on the Senate."
"We're deeply engaged" in North Dakota, he told the donors. He said he believed the GOP had good shots at winning in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Montana and Florida, among other states.
He said he had tried to put pressure on Todd Akin, the GOP candidate in Missouri, to pull out of the race after Akin said women rarely became pregnant in cases of "legitimate rape."
"We should sink Todd Akin. If he's mysteriously murdered, don't look for my whereabouts," Rove joked.
But Akin ignored the advice and stayed in the race. Rove's group says it still won't help him, but other conservative groups are considering putting money into his race.