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A Rove ‘money bomb': The battle to win the Senate

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Karl Rove talks on his mobile phone as he walks across the floor at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Karl Rove talks on his mobile phone as he walks across the floor at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Associated Press

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.

In North Dakota, Rove's donors have paid for television commercials that attack Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, on several fronts.

"Heidi Heitkamp supports Obamacare," one commercial warns, in disapproving tones. "That's not the change we need. Tell Heidi Obamacare is wrong for North Dakota."

Other ads attacked the Democrat for spending state money on private airplane rides (a charge that turned out to be false) and for accepting contributions from a Washington lawyer who did work for the state (true). The ads were paid for by Crossroads GPS.

"They think this Senate seat is an auction," Heitkamp has said in campaign speeches. "It does not belong to Karl Rove and his billionaire friends."

But her argument is weakened by the fact that she too is accepting as much outside money as she can find. As of midsummer, Heitkamp was behind her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Berg, in traditional fundraising; he raised about $4 million to her $2.1 million. But Heitkamp has also been helped by more than $2.7 million from outside groups, compared with about $2.4 million for Berg.

And that may be Rove's greatest achievement this year. Whether or not he succeeds in helping the GOP take over the Senate, he has changed the face of campaign financing. The alliance of money-raising groups he has built appears likely to last for years to come, and is already serving as a model for fundraisers and strategists on the other side.

"Every conspiracy needs a leader of vision who thinks long into the future, who plays the game in his head many moves ahead," Rove told a conservative group back in 2005. He was joking about the conspiracy but not about the long-term strategy.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.