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Karl Rove talks Trump, Cawthorn, NC11

Karl Rove. Andy Bailey illustration Karl Rove. Andy Bailey illustration

Known mostly to the current generation as a political pundit and frequent television/radio/newspaper commentator, Karl Rove has roots in Republican advocacy that predate the Nixon administration. 

Rove is probably best recognized for his close association with the Bush family dynasty, which more or less began when George H.W. Bush appointed Rove as chairman of the College Republicans in 1973. Rove went on to advise George W. Bush during an unsuccessful congressional bid in 1978, and proceeded to work on H.W.’s failed 1980 presidential bid. That relationship ultimately culminated with Rove accepting an offer to serve as a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. 

Since then, he’s worked on behalf of conservative candidates across the nation, earning a reputation as an astute strategist. His company, Karl Rove & Co., is based in Austin. 

A few weeks ago, Rove spoke via Zoom to around 200 Republicans gathered for the NC11 executive committee meeting in Hendersonville, including Rep. Madison Cawthorn. Earlier this week, Rove took some time to talk with The Smoky Mountain News about the issues, personalities and particulars of the upcoming 2022 election. 

The Smoky Mountain News: You’ve had a long career as a Republican strategist, and during that time there’s been a tone shift in the Republican Party to more populist ideals. How long do you think that will last? 

Karl Rove: We’ll see. Populism tends to transmute itself into something else and fade away. The populist strains fade away. I suspect that’ll be here, but the question is what kind of policies are going to be left behind if it does? 

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What’s interesting to me is the populism of the last administration has resulted in language supported by both major political parties regarding China. There’s a much different attitude towards China, at least from public policy perspective today than there was, say 10 years ago. I think in part that’s because the populist expression inside the Republican Party was the rise of Donald Trump. 

But I think it’s also sort of a reaction of people in both parties to the rhetoric and actions of Xi [Jinping, president of China] and 2012 represents a real hinge point in China. It was going one direction before, and it’s gone in a distinctly different direction since the rise of Xi as first the vice president and now the head of the Communist Party.

SMN: We’re starting to get into the 2022 election season. We’ve already seen almost 30 states tighten up laws regarding voting. Do you think it’s the responsibility of the government to make voting easier?

KR: I’d take a little bit of a disagreement with you that they tightened them up. For example, here in Texas, HB 3, the bill that’s before the House of Representatives, expands the number of hours that are available for early voting in Texas on weekdays and expands the number of hours dramatically on weekends. Used to be, the rules for weekend early voting applied to counties with 100,000 population. Now they apply as to counties with 55,000 or more population, and they also expanded the number of hours that are available in those counties. The measures that the Democrats call voter suppression are reaffirmations of existing state law. 

SMN: We can probably disagree on the semantics of whether the laws are tightening things up or making things more difficult or not but I think we can agree that this is an issue that Democrats are going to push in 2022. What’s the single largest issue for Republicans outside of the voting debate for 2022? 

KR: My hope is that the voting debate is not a big part of the 2022 election. If it is, it’ll be to the advantage of the Republicans because Democrats oppose things, like voter ID, which are universally supported. The Republicans do need to be able to say, “We want to make it easier to vote and tougher to steal.” That that ought to be their slogan. 

The big issues are going to be the economy, they’re going to be inflation, they’re going to be the growth of government and they’re going to be taxes. I suspect also there’s going to be a big component of international in there, whether it is the fall of Afghanistan or the threats represented by China or the circumstances in the Middle East. And then healthcare is going to be an issue. It always tends to be, in recent elections, and my sense is immigration is continuing to be an issue. This problem, along the border — I live in Texas. I’m pro-immigration. I believe that immigrants come to the United States and make our country better, but what I see in the uncontrolled migration on the border is a real problem and it’s not going to go away. 

SMN: Speaking of Texas, were you at CPAC in Dallas the other week? 

KR: No, there was a couple hundred people there. I had better things to do that weekend. Like take my wife to Italy. 

SMN: That is a better thing to do than visit Dallas in July. But at CPAC there was an informal straw poll gauging support for President Trump that put support for him at 70 percent of Republicans. My work in this district suggests that number could be much higher. What’s your take on that? 

KR: There were like, several hundred people at Dallas. We had several thousands of people at CPAC in Florida in February and 97 percent of the attendees approved of the president, 60 some-odd percent expected him to run in 2024 and 55 percent would support him. That’s not exactly where I’d want to be among CPAC attendees if I were the former president. 

But look, we’ve got a lot of time and I think it is better for our party to stay focused first and foremost on 2022 and then a distant second, I think it is useful if people want to offer themselves as a potential candidate in 2024. I think that’s healthy for our party for two reasons. One is, I want those people out there working to help us frame a great message for 2022. And second of all, I want to see what they got. So I think it’s a mistake for us to put all of our eggs in one basket regarding 2024. Let’s let a lot of people go out and show us their stuff.

SMN: Full disclosure, Trump did say some pretty nasty things about you in a March 4 Reuters story. When he spoke at the NC GOP convention in June, we thought we were going to see the beginning of the Trump dynasty with Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara maybe jumping into that primary for Sen. Richard Burr’s seat. We didn’t see that. What we saw instead was a Trump endorsement of Congressman Ted Budd. How much do you think that helps Budd?

KR: Certainly it helps him, but you know, you can’t win on an endorsement alone. It’s an advantage. Let’s see if he takes advantage of it and turns it into something. The fundraising numbers were not particularly good. He got the endorsement and then his fundraising I think was $1 million or thereabouts, including a loan. And then of course, Mark Walker was at $156,000 and the former governor [Pat McCrory] was at $1.2 million, but we’ll see.

I mean, you’d rather have the endorsement than not, you certainly would rather have the endorsement than have it go to somebody else, but endorsements alone don’t win. Luther Strange had President Trump’s endorsement in the Alabama senate primary, and lost to Roy Moore. Roy Moore had the President’s endorsement in the Special Election and lost. Really, we invest these endorsements with more [power] than they actually might have. It’s good to have the president’s endorsement, but you got to make something of it by being a strong candidate with a positive message and a compelling argument. 

SMN: And that’s a great point. You may know that our congressman, Madison Cawthorn, was not the Trump-endorsed candidate. Now, Madison Cawthorn has grown to become very closely tied to President Trump. You recently spoke at a North Carolina 11th Congressional District executive committee meeting. What did you tell the people that watched you there? 

KR: I talked about how the 11th District has a big responsibility. The president I think had a margin of about 58,000 votes coming out on the 11th last fall. In order to win North Carolina next year, the grassroots army of the 11th Congressional District is going to have to put everything they can into registering, identifying, persuading and getting out the vote. We’ve got to do a better job next year than we did in 2020. If we’re going to win, the margin in the 11th District needs to be as big as possible. That means lots and lots of work.

SMN: Winding up on that same note, I’m going to make some bold claims here, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. 

Because North Carolina is the most purple state, and because NC11 does produce that huge surplus of Republican votes, I’m going to go ahead and argue that NC11 is the most electorally important Congressional District in the most electorally important state in the union. 

KR: Well, I agree with you that North Carolina is a deeply purple state. They are like four districts or five districts in the state — Rep. Patrick McHenry has got one of ‘em — that turn out bigger margins. I don’t want to pick out just one district because you know, it really does boil down to everybody in North Carolina has got to do better next time around, particularly those four or five districts.

But yeah, North Carolina is a purple, purple state, and the Republicans in order to be winners in 2022 statewide need to recognize that, and in order to make the state more secure long-term they need to recognize that as well. 

That’s why my advice to your congressman was, “Don’t get too far over into campaigning nationwide. Don’t neglect the people back home.” Sophomore victories are really important to cementing a district, and he can play a huge role. The bigger he runs up his numbers in the 11th, the better the chances are the Republicans win the senate race and keep the state legislature.

Leave a comment


  • Jerrymandering is alive and well in NCarolina, that is why redistricting needs to be done. Cawthorn is a disgrace to NC

    posted by Louise Williams

    Monday, 07/26/2021

  • Karl Rove is a political hack. A member of the Neo-Con elite. He's no friend of real Conservatives and Trump supporters. He's part of the Establishment swamp in DC. I would not be in the least interested in anything that character has to say.

    posted by Harold Jones

    Monday, 07/26/2021

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