Top GOP donors seeking greater control

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COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- The biggest donors in the Republican Party are financing a new group to recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts who Republican leaders worry could complicate the party's efforts to win control of the Senate.

The group, the Conservative Victory Project, is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles. It is the most robust attempt yet by Republicans to impose a new sense of discipline over the party, particularly in primary races.

"There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected," said Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, the super-PAC creating the new project. "We don't view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win."

The effort would put a new twist on the Republican-to-Republican warfare that has consumed the party's primary races in recent years. In effect, the establishment is taking steps to fight back against Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations that have wielded significant influence in backing candidates who ultimately lost seats to Democrats in the general election.

The first test of the group's effort to influence primary races could come in Iowa, where some Republicans are already worrying about who will run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat. It is the first open Senate seat in Iowa since 1974, and Republicans are fearful of squandering a rare opportunity.

The Conservative Victory Project, which is backed by Karl Rove and his allies who built American Crossroads into the largest Republican super-PAC of the 2012 election cycle, will start by intensely vetting prospective contenders for congressional races to try to weed out candidates who are seen as too flawed to win general elections.

The project is being waged with last year's Senate contests in mind, particularly the one in Missouri, where Rep. Todd Akin's comment that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy rippled through races across the country. In Indiana, the Republican candidate, Richard Mourdock, lost a race after he said that when a woman became pregnant during a rape it was "something God intended."

As Republicans rebuild from losing the White House race and seats in the House and Senate last year, party leaders and strategists are placing a heightened focus on taking control of the Senate next year. Republicans must pick up six seats to win a majority.

The group's plans, which were outlined for the first time last week in an interview with Mr. Law, call for hard-edge campaign tactics, including television advertising, against candidates whom party leaders see as unelectable and a drag on the efforts to win the Senate. He said Republicans could no longer be squeamish about intervening in primary fights.

Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform, a fiscally conservative advocacy group that plays a role in Republican primary races, said he welcomed a pragmatic sense of discipline in recruiting candidates. But he said it was incorrect to suggest that candidates backed by Tea Party groups were the only ones to lose, pointing to establishment Republicans in North Dakota and Montana who also lost their races last year. "People are imagining a problem that doesn't exist," Mr. Norquist said.

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