RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Senator Carl Levin's decision to retire is a reminder of the steep challenge ahead for Republicans in trying to get back control of the Senate next year. The party needs to win six Senate seats in 2014 - when there will be plenty of open seats, and vulnerable Democrats up for reelection.
As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, though, Republicans have some opposing ideas on the best way to win those seats.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Last year's Senate results were disappointing for the GOP. They ended up losing a number of seats they thought were winnable - and now they're trying to figure out what to do differently next year.
Karl Rove and the big donors behind his Crossroads superPAC have one idea. As Rove explained on "Fox News Sunday," he has formed a new group, the Conservative Victory Project, to vet and recruit Republican Senate candidates.
KARL ROVE: Our object is, to avoid having stupid candidates who can't win general elections, who are undisciplined, can't raise money, aren't putting together the support necessary to win a general election campaign.
LIASSON: Rove is referring to a bunch of Republican candidates whose campaigns imploded - handing Senate seats to Democrats, even in red states like Missouri and Indiana. But in the post-Citizens United, free-for-all world of superPACs, Rove's group already has its competitors - antiestablishment groups, like Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks.
Chris Chocola runs the Club for Growth, a group that backs conservative candidates in Republican Senate primaries, he sees Rove's effort as an inside-the-Beltway power grab.
CHRIS CHOCOLA: They think they can pick the candidate. And you can't pick a candidate, you can support a candidate. Those darn pesky voters are the ones that actually pick the candidate.
LIASSON: Chocola says Rove's group has identified the wrong problem. And he points to a series of unsuccessful moderate candidates in states like Virginia, Wisconsin, Montana and North Dakota.
All establishment candidates, all backed and picked by groups that would be aligned with Rove's new group, and they all lost. So that's really the question that we should be asking.
Chocola and the Club for Growth have started a project of their own, it's aimed at moderate Republicans in the House. It's called PrimaryMyCongressman.com, and its website singles out Republicans from districts that were easily carried by Mitt Romney but who receive low scores from the club for their votes in favor of the auto bailout, or tarp, or the fiscal cliff deal.
CHOCOLA: So they represent very conservative districts that would support a champion of economic freedom, but they don't choose to vote that way. All of these districts would elect someone more conservative than the incumbent currently serving.
LIASSON: PrimaryMyCongressman.com has won applause from the conservative grass roots. Here's Erick Erickson of the RedState.com blog.
ERICK ERICKSON: I think it's probably one of the greatest ideas ever. Basically the message from Club for Growth is sending is that people in their own districts have a good idea of who they should run and they don't like this top-down approach from Washington, D.C.
LIASSON: But Steven Law of the Conservative Victory Project says his group is not trying to start a street fight with the Tea Party or the Club for Growth - he just wants to identify the most conservative candidates who can win.
STEVE LAW: Our goal is to try to see if we can build consensus behind the best possible candidate. And the best example for how this is done is to take a look at what the Democrats do. They have very, very few contested primaries now, they're able to bridge the ideological gap in their party, which is quite large, settle upon a candidate who best represents that state or district, and get behind them. And that's what we hope to see on our side.
LIASSON: If the process works as law intends, then the Conservative Victory Project, the Tea Party and the Club for Growth could all end up supporting the same candidates. If it doesn't, there could be a new round of establishment vs. grass roots battles inside the Republican primaries - hampering the party's goal of taking back the Senate in 2014.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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