The battle for the soul of the Republican party is getting nastier following the launch of a new effort by some wealthy donors to strike back at ideologically driven activists – including conservative billionaires – who have steered the party to the far right.

A new fundraising group spearheaded by Karl Rove, the former top adviser to George W. Bush, called the Conservative Victory Project is aiming to prevent “poor quality candidates” from winning Republican primaries and then losing against Democrats. A spokesman for the group said that the elevation of candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who lost Senate bids to Democrats last year following controversial remarks about rape and abortion, have cost Republicans five to seven Senate seats over the years.

The effort, which is seen as helping more traditional and mainstream Republicans fend off conservative challengers, will ultimately pit wealthy donors to Mr Rove’s group against wealthy activists at the Club for Growth and other organisations who have made it their mission to rid the Republican party of politicians they say are not conservative enough and replace them with hardliners.

“This has nothing to do with message and everything to do with quality of the candidates. And our solution to this is to identify candidates, the most conservative possible, that can win primaries and general elections well,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Conservative Victory Project.

But in a sign of just how messy the intraparty fight has become, influential conservatives have quickly turned on the new plan, pointing out that Mr Rove backed a slew of candidates who lost in 2012.

“I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement,” said Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger. While Mr Rove was trying to “lend a veneer of conservative credibility” to certain kinds of candidates, Mr Erickson said the Republican strategist was really trying to recreate the “big government conservatism” of the Bush era.

Top donors to another Rove-backed group, American Crossroads, include Harold Simmons, a wealthy investor, and Sheldon Adelson, the gaming tycoon, and his wife, Miriam. But the new fundraising effort could alienate donors like John Childs, of JW Childs Associates, who according to public records donated both to American Crossroads and the conservative Club for Growth in 2012.

One conservative activist said it was too early to tell whether Mr Rove’s efforts would have an impact, and noted that it was likely more of a fundraising ploy than an effort to drive a wedge between Republicans.

Amy Kremer, a Tea Party activist, told The Hill newspaper that the Rove-backed group was willing to “sacrifice principle for power”.

Another Republican, John Feehery, a former senior staff member in the House, said there were many different kinds of donors in the Republican party – from activists like the conservative Koch brothers to wealthy hedge fund executives who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative, and others who simply want to oppose Mr Obama.

“You have these tea party groups out there and the hard right and they seem to spend a majority of their time attacking Republicans. They waste a lot of money, too,” he says.

The effort comes as party leaders in Washington are seeking to soften the Republican image following a devastating election in which Barack Obama won a second term and Democrats held on to their majority in the Senate. In a speech on Tuesday, Eric Cantor, the majority leader, sought to “rebrand” the party by shifting emphasis away from budget and fiscal fights and focusing on issues like immigration and innovation.

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