His critics can cite the elections of Marco Rubio in Florida in 2010 and Ted Cruz in Texas in 2012. The National Republican Senatorial Committee originally supported Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, over Rubio. Almost all Texas Republican leaders supported Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst over Cruz.
But neither Rubio nor Cruz was a total outsider. Rubio was speaker of the Florida House and had quiet backing from Jeb Bush. Cruz was a solicitor general of Texas and had a nationwide network of fans.
The fact is that some candidates who rise up from nowhere turn out to have good political instincts, like Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, while others make game-losing mistakes.
The Republican Party has benefited on balance from the infusion of new people symbolized by the tea party movement, just as the Democratic Party benefited on balance 40 years ago from the infusion of people from the peace movement.
But such outsider movements also produce some candidates with a gift for campaign-losing gaffes. And they produce primary electorates who prefer a disastrous purist over someone not far off in views but also capable of winning an election.
Assessing whether a candidate has good political instincts is a matter of judgment about which reasonable people will disagree.
Rove has had a good record of doing this over the years. He really was the Republican establishment in 2002, when he picked winning candidates in key races.
Of course, it helped that he had the backing of a Republican president with 60-plus percent job approval.
There's no Republican establishment like that today. Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus is by definition an insider.
He also seems to have good political instincts -- good enough that in Wisconsin he backed a newcomer like Ron Johnson in 2010.
So I don't see this as a fight between the grass roots and the Washington establishment. It's a struggle to find candidates with serious convictions and good political instincts -- which is usually an uphill struggle for Republicans.