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Karl Rove's Karl Rove

Democrats have targeted their longtime nemesis Karl Rove as the mastermind behind the tens of millions of dollars of ads from independent groups attacking their candidates this fall, but maybe they should have listened more carefully when Rove recently told the audience ofabout “one of the smartest people in politics you’ve never heard of.”

In fact, Carl Forti, the low-key career Republican operative Rove was talking about, may be the figure most intricately involved in the outside groups transforming the 2010 election season with a deluge of hard-hitting ads.

Forti has played a critical role in shaping the ad campaigns of two of the biggest-spending outside groups — American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (or Crossroads GPS, for short),and veteran operative Ed Gillespie helped create this year — and Forti also is a consultant to two other outside groups that have emerged as top spenders this year: the 60 Plus Association and Americans for Job Security. (See: )

Together, the four groups have spent $33 million on sharp-edged television advertising boosting Republicans, attacking Democrats personally, and pillorying them for supporting the stimulus, the Democratic healthcare overhaul and other initiatives pushed by President Barack Obama.

“Carl is a strategic political warrior. He knows issues, he knows polling, and he knows how to implement complicated strategies,” , a veteran GOP operative who calls Forti “the Alexander the Great of the Republican independent expenditure world.” (See: )

The Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionright through Election Day on usually critical ads known as independent expenditures and on hard-hitting issue-based ads known as electioneering communications. As a result, nonprofit corporations registered under section 501(c) of the tax code, like Crossroads GPS, 60 Plus and Americans for Job Security, have emerged as the political vehicles of choice for big Republican donors and savvy GOP operatives, partly because their tax status allows them to accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations without disclosing the source of that funding. (See: )

And Forti was ideally positioned to play a central role in the surge of outside groups.

During the 2006 campaign, he managed the Republican Party’s largest-ever : the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $80 million outlay. (See:)

“It was a huge amount of dough,” saidof New York, who chaired the NRCC that cycle. “Carl was the guy that built the structure and the strategy.”

In 2008, Forti began developing his reputation as a maestro of outside group independent expenditures, taking a job as vice president of issue advocacy for a new and pioneering, but ultimately disappointing, 501(c)(4) group called . And last year, Forti worked for a 501(c)(4) group called the Institute for Liberty opposing the Democratic health care bill.

“Carl has carved out that niche,” said formerof Virginia, who as chairman of the NRCC in 2000 and 2002 was Forti’s boss. “What has happened in American politics with the advent of campaign finance [reforms] is the parties have taken a back seat to the interest groups — so the people who are running these other things have as much to say as the party operatives. They’ve got spending, and they’re less accountable. Carl’s very good at what he does.”

Before establishing himself at the vanguard of GOP outside group politics, Forti, 38, traveled a rather conventional path through the ranks of the professional Republican class. He started out in the mid-1990s doing digital editing for a small ad firm run by Paul Wilson, a veteran GOP consultant who hired Forti after coming to speak to his political strategy class at George Washington University.

“He uses very few words,” says Wilson. “He doesn’t try to overpower anyone or dominate anyone. When he says something, he’s really thought about it, and that’s one of the secrets of his success.”

Forti has come to specialize in the legal and tactical challenges of structuring effective independent ad campaigns that reinforce the messages of other outside groups and GOP candidates and undercut those of Democrats — all while avoiding illegal “coordination” with the party committees and their candidates. 

The skills — which will prove vital for operatives seeking to follow Forti into the bold new frontier of outside advocacy — have come in handy for him this cycle, since Black Rock Group, a firm he founded last year with Michael Dubke, has worked for a handful of Republican congressional candidates, including one in Colorado, where Crossroads is engaged in get-out-the-vote efforts. 

Black Rock, which is located in the same office suite along the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., as Americans for Job Security, has received more than $31,000 for its work on a handful of Republican congressional campaigns, including that of New York Senate , for whom Forti . (See: )

But Black Rock stopped accepting payments from all its candidate clients after their primaries, except for DioGuardi, said Jonathan Collegio, a Crossroads spokesman who worked with Forti at the NRCC.

And, Collegio added, “Carl is firewalled off from making any decisions on behalf of American Crossroads about the New York Senate race.”

Forti’s partner, Dubke, also runs a media buying firm called Crossroads Media, which is not connected with the Crossroads political groups but which operates out of the same Alexandria office suite as Black Rock and Americans for Job Security and has had a big hand in the explosion of outside advertising. Of the $33 million spent by the four nonprofit groups with which Forti is associated, $19 million went through Crossroads Media, a POLITICO analysis of FEC records found. The Crossroads groups paid an additional $140,000 — fees for ad production — to the firm of Forti’s old boss, Wilson.

Meanwhile, Black Rock — named for a declining neighborhood in Forti and Dubke’s hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. — also represents the conservative Pajamas Media, a Web-based company that routinely skewers Democrats.

Forti, who last year told National Journal, "I spend all my time trying to avoid the spotlight," declined to comment for this story. And unlike many political figures who turn down interviews, he also largely resisted the temptation to try to shape reporters’ narrative behind the scenes.

Just one old friend called, unprompted, on his behalf, to echo others who stressed how unusual it is that Forti never appears on cable television to promote himself, despite having more political chops than most of those who are

Wilson described Forti, a 6-foot, 220-pound sports junkie who’s devoted to his hometown Buffalo Bills and once coached a season of high school freshman basketball, as “a teddy bear,” adding that his wife, Sandra, who is not involved in politics, is a better soccer player.

Forti’s temperament seems ideally suited to the identities of outside groups, which typically have sought little attention for themselves. Crossroads may be an exception, thanks to Rove,that he doesn’t play a role in the day-to-day operations of the groups, alleging Democrats and the media have exaggerated his involvement “because anything that I’m associated with gets attacked.”

But in an appearance last week on Fox News, Rove repeatedly referred to the groups as “we” andObama, who Rove said “has helped drive people to our website and has helped to raise the amount of money that we received.”

The Crossroads groupsthat they’d exceeded their $52 million fundraising goal and now intend to raise $65 million before Election Day. Their meteoric fundraising has allowed them to surpass the 2008 impact of Freedom’s Watch, but the divergent fates of the independent groups may say as much about the shifts in the political landscape over the past two years as about the players involved. (See: )

to meet its lofty goals — one big donorthat the group hoped to raise $200 million by Election Day 2008 — and eventually folded under the weight of its own bloated infrastructure and hype.

The group’s fundraising struggles may have been attributable partly to GOP 2008 presidential nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain, a longtime critic of big money in politics, who discouraged outside group spending, Forti suggestedin the July edition of Campaigns & Elections magazine.

And it doesn’t hurt to have Rove using his donor-big Rolodex to pry free big checkswho are wary of thebut who know and trust Rove and Gillespie from their years running former President George W. Bush’s political operations.

Plus, many donors saw the Citizens United decision as a signal that outside groups and their donors would not be subject to the kinds ofthat followed the 2004 and 2006 cycles.

The operatives behind the Crossroads groups, as well as other , including American Action Network and Resurgent Republic, say they’ve carefully studied and applied the lessons both from shortlived conservative efforts like Freedom’s Watch and from persevering liberal ones like They say their groups are built for the long haul, thanks to their lean staffs and reliance on operatives like Forti who make sure that their efforts don’t overlap with those of allied outside groups or party committees.

Forti told Campaigns & Elections, “I've been doing the I.E. stuff for a while” and asserted “over the last three cycles we've been getting smarter as to how to relay information” within the bounds of the FEC’s coordination rules.

That’s partly due to having “more experienced political professionals running the political operations at more of these outside groups,” Forti said. “So I think there are little things that we're starting to do better now, having had two cycles of outside group experience. When I was at the committee, those outside groups just didn't exist.”

The heightened coordination was illustrated last week when the Crossroads groups, along with American Action Network and another 501(c)(4) group, the Commission for Hope, Growth and Opportunity, unveiled a $50 million jointtargeting dozens of House Democratic incumbents who maintain cash advantages over their Republican rivals. 

If the three-week long House effort reaches its spending goal, it will exceed the amount that Forti’s old employer, the NRCC, is expected to spend on independent expenditures for the entire campaign cycle.

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