features editor and national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.
Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Sheelah Kolhatkar attended an exclusive fundraiser on the final day of the Republican National Convention. Speaking to a group of hedge fund billionaires and investors at the event, top GOP strategist Karl Rove joked about murdering Missouri Senate hopeful Todd Akin and laid out his strategy for winning the 2012 presidential election. Kolhatkar joins us to discuss Rove’s event. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, "Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency," Democracy Now!'s coverage of the Democratic convention, inside and out. I'm Amy Goodman.
Top Republican strategist Karl Rove has apologized to Missouri representative and Senate candidate Todd Akin after joking Akin might be, quote, "found mysteriously murdered." Akin drew widespread condemnation and calls to drop out of the Senate race after saying it’s rare for women to get pregnant from what he termed "legitimate rape."
Well, last week, a reporter from Bloomberg Businessweek attended an exclusive fundraiser on the final day of the Republican National Convention. Speaking to a group of hedge fund billionaires and investors at the event, Karl Rove said, quote, "We should sink Todd Akin. If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!"
Well, during the elite fundraiser, Karl Rove also laid out his strategy for winning the 2012 presidential election, at one point saying the people the Republicans need to win over had previously voted for Obama.
The reporter who broke the story is joining us now from our New York studio. Sheelah Kolhatkar is a features editor and national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.
Sheelah, welcome to Democracy Now! First explain how you got into this super PAC fundraiser.
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: It was not something I expected or imagined would happen, but I went down to the Republican convention. I cover Wall Street, among other things, for Bloomberg Businessweek, and I’m very interested in the intersection of Wall Street and politics. So, of course, the RNC is where that world collides. And I got down there to do sort of general reporting on some longer-term pieces I’m working on, and of course was aware from my past coverage of conventions that the convention is never really about what’s going on in the convention hall—the speeches, all that hoopla, that’s really just a sideshow—and the real convention is the parallel convention that’s going on in the sort of private dining rooms and clubs and hotels all around Tampa. And that is where the strategists, like Karl Rove, are meeting with the money, the businessmen, mostly, who are increasingly funding this campaign.
So, unexpectedly, I was invited to this Karl Rove event. I showed up there. I had no idea what it was, what to expect. Once I was inside, it started to become clear to me that this was actually something that was very revealing about the way the election is going, who’s increasingly in control of it. And, you know, all I could do at that point was sit there and take it in.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us—you went into the Tampa Club? And tell us what this club is, and then just describe the scene for us.
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Sure. Well, the Tampa Club—I don’t know a lot about the Tampa Club. It’s in downtown Tampa. It’s a very discreet little enclave in a very discreetly marked building. I found myself inside a dining room, where there was a lovely breakfast buffet laid out—scrambled eggs and fruit and coffee. And people were mingling, and Karl was greeting guests. And there were a dozen or so round tables in a room with 10 seats at each, and people sort of sat down with their—with their plates. And after the chitchat ended, the American Crossroads staff took to the podium, and they—you know, they sort of laid out what they wanted to do.
They wanted to update these attendees, the top donors to American Crossroads—you know, billionaire hedge fund managers, industrialists, financiers, people who have been pouring money into Rove’s organization to influence the election. You know, they wanted to convey to those people that that money has been well spent, it’s been effective. They wanted to explain to them what they’ve been doing with it, what their strategy has been. And, of course, probably the most important aspect of the whole meeting, they wanted to ask for more money, because they said, "Well, we still have a lot of work to do. We" — you know, their budget is around $300 million for this cycle. They have raised around $200 million of that. They said that they have another $50 million in pledges, although that’s not quite in the bank yet. So they wanted to make clear to the folks present that they still need more money, that there’s a lot more that they want to do.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what American Crossroads is, Sheelah.
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Sure. Well, as has been covered by my own magazine, by Paul Barrett and others, when Karl Rove left Washington, you know, he figured out another way to make himself relevant to the political landscape. He started a super PAC called American Crossroads. This was about two years ago that he started this organization. It can raise unlimited donations from corporations and individuals and can use that money to try to influence—influence voters and to advocate directly for candidates. He also started a sister organization called Crossroads GPS, which is a social welfare—so-called "social welfare" organization, a nonprofit that is meant to educate the public on issues. And that organization is not supposed to engage primarily in political activity.
But, you know, one interesting thing that has been noted elsewhere, and that I of course observed during this breakfast, is that the two are effectively the same. The management is the same. The letterhead on all the materials handed out at the breakfast, you know, was the same. There were forms for donations for both American Crossroads, the super PAC, and Crossroads GPS, the social welfare organization—were handed out to everyone there with instructions on how to wire money to each of them. You know, there was material explaining what the missions are of both organizations, and they’re very, very similar. So, you know, one thing that’s clear to everyone is that the FEC laws that are meant to create distinctions between these types of organizations are wobbly and are not necessarily being, you know, paid much attention to by the people involved in this area.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Karl Rove began to address the group, joined by Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor?
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Yes. So, Rove and Barbour are both top advisers to American Crossroads. The CEO of the organization is named Steven Law. And Law explained, while these are our two sort of big strategic brains who are helping direct everything that we do—and he said that neither of them are drawing a salary from American Crossroads. They are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it because they think it’s really important and because they care.
And they then proceeded to lay out, you know, in sort of a back-and-forth fashion, what their strategy is for dealing with this election and for getting Romney into office. And, you know, Rove sort of focused on the state-by-state intrigue, the data, the political dynamic in each race. He has sort of an encyclopedic knowledge of every region in the entire country and what the dynamics are there. And he explained to the group that they had conducted extensive focus group testing, and they had amassed a lot of data and that they were sharing all this data and they were sort of sharing these focus groups with the other outside fundraising organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers groups, and others.
So, out of all this research, they had created a very specific picture of the type of voter that they need to reach in order to tip the election in Mitt Romney’s favor. They said that this is somebody who probably voted for Barack Obama the last time, who actually likes him, even if they don’t necessarily like a lot of the things that have happened under Obama’s presidency, maybe they’re hurting economically. But it’s a very small group of people who fall into this camp. And at one point, Steven Law asked Rove, "Well, listen, when can we take the gloves off? When can the campaign get more pointed and more personal? You know, a lot of people think that’s—that’s more effective." And Rove said, "Actually, that is not the strategy that’s going to work. We need to be respectful. We need to sort of focus on the issues at hand. If we call Obama a socialist or we call him a left-winger or, you know, say he’s a bad person, these voters we’re trying to reach will sort of recoil from that." So, you know, their whole plan is to speak in a very clear, almost neutral tone, as they would present it, and not get nasty and personal.
AMY GOODMAN: The races that they felt were critical, Sheelah Kolhatkar, that they are focusing on around the country, they have singled out how many?
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Well, Rove spent a lot of time talking about the presidential race, but, of course, the whole thing lives and dies on the Senate. And for either party, the Senate is crucial. If Obama wins the presidential election but he—the Democrats lose the Senate, Obama is going to be in a very tough position. He will not be able to really do anything. If Mitt Romney becomes president but the Republicans do not gain control of the Senate, he will not be able to repeal Obamacare, which they all agree is their sort of top priority, the first thing he’s going to do. And, of course, the ultimate Republican goal is to have Romney in office and to, you know, take a majority of the Senate and maintain their majority in the House, where, you know—and they could really do most everything they want, which is a nightmare scenario for Democrats. So, a lot of this breakfast was spent dissecting Senate races.
And Rove went through maybe 14 or 15 different ones. He pointed out that the Republicans have 47 seats now. He feels concerned that they could lose two. And that means they need at least six to—you know, to reach 51. And there were, you know, a number of interesting examples he went into. You know, Maine is one where they’re feeling very, very concerned. Olympia Snowe is retiring. Rove pointed out that she has money left over that she is not planning to pass along to the Republican in Maine. She’s planning to use it for philanthropic activity. So he urged the donors in the room to call her and ask for their money back and to give it to Charlie Summers, who’s the Republican candidate running there, who Rove sort of lavished praise on. You know, he mentioned Nebraska and North Dakota as states where they feel pretty positive about their chances.
And he talked about Ohio. That’s a state where a very large amount of outside money has been pouring in. It might be number one in terms of outside money coming in and funding advertisements there. And Rove specifically mentioned that he had had a call from an anonymous benefactor, who did not come from Ohio, who came from another state, but who was just very interested and wanted to donate half of their $6 million budget in the state. So, the condition was, it had to be a matching challenge.
AMY GOODMAN: Brown?
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Yes, exactly. This donor was a big fan of Josh Mandel, who’s running against Brown. So, Rove mentioned that the owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team was helping him raise that money. And they are just pounding away in Ohio with TV ads. So, you know, a lot of what he talked about was television advertising. But they mentioned, as well, that they are preparing phone and mail programs in addition to the ads. It doesn’t sound like those have been unleashed yet, but that is part of what they have in their arsenal.
AMY GOODMAN: And Rubio, Marco Rubio in Florida, where, of course, the Republican convention was held, who is running, as well.
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Yes, Rubio came in. He made a brief sort of speech to the group as a sort of an intro warm-up act to Rove and Haley Barbour. And Rubio is an interesting case. He’s a superstar of the GOP. He was—he would go on to introduce Mitt Romney later that night at the convention. And he stood before the group, and he explained to them why American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS were really important. And he used himself as an example. He said that early in his career in 2009, as he was preparing to run for Senate, he was a longshot. No one thought he could win. And Rove singled him out as someone with great potential and sent him a check. And he said, throughout his campaign, he noticed Crossroads GPS ads playing on TV that were defining the issues in a very clear way that he felt were helpful to him. He, of course, pointed out that, "Oh, we didn’t coordinate with them, of course, because, by election law, that’s not allowed." But he said, "This made a huge difference."
And then he said to the men in the room, "You know, you may feel some shame about what you’re doing, giving money to this sort of group. The press will try to shame you. But, in fact, this is patriotic." He made a—he made a point of saying he doesn’t think Obama is a bad person; he just feels that Obama is sort of quashing the entrepreneurial spirit of the American dream. And he thought it was really important to continue to give money to fund these efforts.
And, of course, he closed his talk with a little joke about whether or not he broke any laws. And this was something else that was sort of interesting about this unscripted environment. There were a lot of sort of gallows humor about FEC laws. Even American Crossroads’s general counsel was introduced as "the guy who keeps us out of orange jumpsuits." So, you know, that was very revealing, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to just clarify that Marco Rubio is not running for a Senate seat, since he won in 2010, but he certainly is a headliner for other races around the country. Finally, Sheelah Kolhatkar, let’s get to Missouri, the race where Claire McCaskill, until two weeks ago, was actually neck and neck or maybe even behind the incumbent senator, as she is being challenged by Todd Akin. So, if you could, finally, talk about what Karl Rove had to say about Todd Akin, who refused to step down. Well, you tell us the story and the context, for people who may have been on another planet when this controversy came out a few weeks ago.
SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: Sure. Well, Akin, in various places, has made some very controversial comments about rape. And he said, in the case of a, quote-unquote, "legitimate rape," it’s unlikely that a woman will get pregnant, so therefore there was no need for a rape exception to any sort of law outlawing abortion. Understandably, people got very upset and outraged by this rather preposterous assertion on his part, and Rove expressed extreme frustration with Akin. He made a joke that has gotten a lot of attention about how, you know, he wants Akin out. "We should sink Todd Akin," he said. You know, "If his dead body shows up, don’t come looking for me." He was obviously joking, but it does speak to how strongly he feels about this. He said that they have until the 25th of September to kind of convince Akin to leave the race, because, basically, as long as he stays in there, Claire McCaskill has a much stronger chance of winning, and she was in serious jeopardy before this whole scandal erupted.
Rove then listed off a handful of people who are interested in his seat, his spot on the ticket, if he actually does leave, including a former senator of Missouri, Jack Danforth, who specifically told Rove that the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate was actually what galvanized him, because, he said, "Well, this indicates to me that Romney is really serious about tackling entitlements and entitlement reform, so I want to get in on that." So there’s this whole group of people sort of champing at the bit to take over Akin’s spot, and Akin, so far, is refusing to buckle, even though all of his financial support, you know, from the Republican committee, from outside groups, has all been withdrawn and redeployed to other states where they feel that they have a better shot.
AMY GOODMAN: Sheelah Kolhatkar, I want to thank you very much for being with us. She is the features editor and national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. And we will link to your article at democracynow.org. She got into that meeting of Karl Rove at the Tampa Club. The piece is called "Inside Karl Rove’s Billionaire Fundraiser."
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re "Breaking With Convention." When we come back, we’re going to look at the South, as we broadcast from here in Charlotte, North Carolina. Stay with us.