The Club for Growth Grows Up

The fiscally conservative group that pioneered the practice of challenging moderates in primaries is now working with the establishment — warily.

Chris Chocola, the President of the Club for Growth, speaks with reporters at the offices of the National Journal and Hotline on Wednesday, August 17, 2011.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
March 25, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

Be­fore the tea party even ex­is­ted, there was the Club for Growth. The fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive group made a name for it­self in the last dec­ade by chal­len­ging mod­er­ate in­cum­bents in primar­ies, a strategy that’s been im­it­ated by oth­ers in re­cent years. Last year, it backed state Treas­urer Richard Mour­dock’s primary chal­lenge to Sen. Richard Lugar and com­plained about long­time Sen. Or­rin Hatch’s re­cord. To kick off 2013, the group named 10 squishy House Re­pub­lic­ans it hoped to chal­lenge in primar­ies.

But since then, the group has dialed back its pug­nacious­ness and played ball with party lead­ers. Com­pared with its up­start rivals, the Club’s tac­tics this cycle have been down­right es­tab­lish­ment-friendly. While act­iv­ists waged war against Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, the Club de­clined to back his op­pon­ent. In a press re­lease, it even praised the six-term in­cum­bent’s vot­ing re­cord and de­fense of First Amend­ment rights.

This month, the group un­ex­pec­tedly en­dorsed Alaska Sen­ate can­did­ate Dan Sul­li­van, who rates as the favored choice of Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton. In sup­port­ing him, the Club passed over the man it en­dorsed in 2010, Joe Miller, who is once again seek­ing the party’s nom­in­a­tion. It backed only three chal­lengers to sit­ting Re­pub­lic­an law­makers so far this cycle, few­er than its con­ser­vat­ive com­pet­it­ors. And it has poured money in­to Arkan­sas, in sup­port of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee’s lead­ing Sen­ate re­cruit this cycle, Rep. Tom Cot­ton.

It’s enough that even some of the group’s once-ar­dent crit­ics have come around to em­bra­cing it — even if the Club’s lead­er can barely be­lieve what he’s hear­ing.

“People call me once in a while and say, the es­tab­lish­ment folks, even the Mc­Con­nell folks, they say, ‘You guys are kind of the mod­el,’ ” said Chris Chocola, the Club’s pres­id­ent, in an in­ter­view at the group’s sixth-floor of­fice in down­town Wash­ing­ton. “So, get that in writ­ing. I’d love to get that in writ­ing.”

In truth, Chocola, a 52-year-old former con­gress­man from In­di­ana, ar­gues his group hasn’t changed at all since it began get­ting deeply in­volved in cam­paigns in the early 2000s. The Club has al­ways care­fully vet­ted and eval­u­ated pro­spect­ive en­dorsees closely, and held high stand­ards for find­ing Re­pub­lic­ans with a deep ap­pre­ci­ation of the per­ils of over-tax­a­tion and reg­u­la­tion. But even if the Club for Growth hasn’t changed, the world around it has.

By in­volving it­self in less-scru­tin­ized open House primar­ies, it has played a sem­in­al role in mov­ing the House Re­pub­lic­an caucus to the right over the years. But there’s a cost to the suc­cess: Al­though it re­mains the pree­m­in­ent con­ser­vat­ive out­side group, it has in­spired the pro­lif­er­a­tion of oth­er in­sur­gent or­gan­iz­a­tions just like it. And many of them — like the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund and Her­it­age Ac­tion Fund — have taken an even more ant­ag­on­ist­ic re­la­tion­ship to­ward the Re­pub­lic­an powers-that-be.

The res­ult is the Club now sits in the polit­ic­al cen­ter of the GOP in a way per­haps no oth­er con­ser­vat­ive group does — able to main­tain cred­ib­il­ity with both es­tab­lish­ment and act­iv­ist forces in the party. The ques­tion is, with those two sides al­ways at each oth­er’s throats, can it stay there for long?

“In com­par­is­on to groups like Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund and the Madis­on Pro­ject, the Club has been the slightly more the grown-up in the room this cycle in terms of how they ap­proach races,” said Bri­an Walsh, a former NR­SC spokes­man who has been crit­ic­al of the or­gan­iz­a­tion.

Chocola of­fers an al­tern­ate and more-flat­ter­ing ex­plan­a­tion: His group’s track re­cord has simply won over many skep­tics. He points to the elec­tion of Marco Ru­bio, Mike Lee, and Pat Toomey — him­self the Club’s former pres­id­ent — as proof the group picks not only con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates but can­did­ates who win gen­er­al elec­tions. He’s quick to point out the men and wo­men who nev­er re­ceived his im­prim­at­ur, like Christine O’Don­nell or Todd Akin, who not only lost but em­bar­rassed the GOP be­fore de­feat.

“When people start say­ing we’re ir­ra­tion­al, I say, ‘OK, so you’d rather have Ar­len Specter than Pat Toomey. You’d rather have Charlie Crist than Marco Ru­bio?’ ” he said. “So we have ex­amples of — really?”

To be sure, the Club still eli­cits eye-rolls from GOP polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als who re­gard it as a group with a big bark but lim­ited bite. Oth­ers, cit­ing the group’s op­pos­i­tion to vet­er­an Sen. Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi or Rep. Mike Simpson’s primary foes in Idaho, swear the group is as de­struct­ive to the GOP as it’s ever been. And in an hour-long in­ter­view, Chocola reg­u­larly mocked and lam­pooned the party com­mit­tees and seasoned op­er­at­ives he thinks have no idea how to build a sus­tain­able con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­ity. In­deed, the Club made a point of an­noun­cing it would be us­ing Jamestown As­so­ci­ates to pro­duce its ads this cycle. The group was black­lis­ted by Mc­Con­nell and the party com­mit­tees for aid­ing Mc­Con­nell’s Re­pub­lic­an primary rival, Matt Bev­in.

“I don’t think Mc­Con­nell or his folks have any ad­mir­a­tion for us at all,” Chocola said. “We’re just not in that race. It’s pretty black and white. If we were in the race, we would be just like [oth­er act­iv­ists]. We’re not in the race? We’re the ra­tion­al smart people.”

That char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion is hotly dis­puted by many party strategists, who point to 2010 as the year when the fal­lout in­tens­i­fied. That year, the Club backed Shar­ron Angle, who squandered a golden op­por­tun­ity to de­feat Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials, fa­mil­i­ar with her back­ground in the Nevada Le­gis­lature, had feared that she would be one of the few can­did­ates un­able to win the seat. Two years later, the Club’s en­dorse­ment of Mour­dock against Lugar and out­spoken op­pos­i­tion to former Wis­con­sin Gov. Tommy Thompson in the Wis­con­sin Sen­ate race cre­ated fresh wounds with Re­pub­lic­ans.

“When you’re spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars against folks who are far more aligned with you than many Demo­crats are, it’s very frus­trat­ing,” Walsh said.

Chocola dis­misses those con­cerns. He said Mour­dock’s de­bate gaffe over abor­tion was en­tirely un­pre­dict­able for a can­did­ate with no his­tory of con­tro­versy. He ad­ded that he’s glad many of the people who com­plain about the Club sug­gest how power­ful they think the or­gan­iz­a­tion is.

“I’m not say­ing we’re smarter or any­thing, but we’re con­sist­ent. We’re just do­ing the same thing, and learn the les­sons of that. And so, should they be in the primar­ies or not in primar­ies? They don’t know. And we don’t care,” he said.

In fact, Chocola’s non­chal­ance con­trib­uted to the un­likely al­li­ance with the NR­SC in Arkan­sas and Alaska. He said the Club is simply look­ing for well-re­garded con­ser­vat­ives who can win elec­tions. And be­cause of the group’s work mov­ing the party right­ward, the com­mit­tee has con­cluded that can­did­ates who es­pouse the Club’s brand of con­ser­vat­ism are cap­able of win­ning pivotal statewide races.

“The fact that 11 people on the corner of 20th and L can out­man­euver, out-in­flu­ence, outdo the en­tire es­tab­lish­ment and all their al­lies “¦ that’s pretty im­press­ive, isn’t it?” Chocola said.

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