Power of the Purse

Voters don’t take their cues from big-name endorsers. They’re influenced by advertising dollars that endorsements can help unleash.

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
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Scott Bland and Sean Sullivan
June 14, 2012, 11 a.m.

Cam­paign en­dorse­ments from power brokers were once meas­ured by the num­ber of votes a polit­ic­al ma­chine could de­liv­er on Elec­tion Day. Now, in the era of In­ter­net so­li­cit­a­tions and na­tion­al net­works of ideo­lo­gic­ally aligned donors, the en­dorse­ments that mat­ter don’t move votes — they move money.

In the Re­pub­lic­an Party, a cot­tage in­dustry of con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions with wealthy donor bases has sprung up to rival the of­fi­cial wings of the GOP, de­liv­er­ing their sup­port­ers’ bundled con­tri­bu­tions, or even valu­able in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures. The money trail makes it easy to sort out the en­dorse­ments that mat­ter from the ones that are simply back­ground noise.

Take the Club For Growth, an an­ti­tax group star­ted in the 1980s by busi­ness-minded Re­pub­lic­ans. It has already dropped more than $5.9 mil­lion in in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures in con­gres­sion­al races this cycle. Best known for tak­ing out mod­er­ate in­cum­bents in Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies, the group tries to elect the most fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates it can find, even if that ends up leav­ing a seat vul­ner­able to a Demo­crat­ic takeover. (Rep. Tom Cole of Ok­lahoma, the former Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man who has feuded with the group for years, used to call the or­gan­iz­a­tion “the Club for Demo­crat­ic Growth.”)

“We don’t get in­volved in races un­less we think we can be a de­term­in­ing factor,” said Pres­id­ent Chris Chocola, a former GOP House mem­ber from In­di­ana. “We can love a can­did­ate, and if they are go­ing to win without us, we will let them win without us.”

The club’s power lies in its donor net­work. In North Car­o­lina’s 8th Dis­trict, dent­ist Scott Keadle got a late in­fu­sion of much-needed cash after the group en­dorsed him on March 19, six weeks be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an primary. He re­ceived $45,000 in 71 dona­tions over the course of the month im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the en­dorse­ment. Keadle, who ad­vanced to a late-sum­mer primary run­off, had taken more than three months to col­lect his pre­vi­ous $45,000 in in­di­vidu­al dona­tions from a sim­il­ar num­ber of donors.

In Arkan­sas’s 4th Dis­trict, Tom Cot­ton reaped more than $240,000 in in­di­vidu­al dona­tions in the six weeks after the club en­dorsed him on Feb. 14, more than half of what he had raised in that cat­egory in the six months be­fore the en­dorse­ment. Cot­ton is now the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee.

The Club for Growth’s will­ing­ness to spend on mass com­mu­nic­a­tions also makes it for­mid­able. The group’s su­per PAC spent $1.45 mil­lion on ads in In­di­ana’s Sen­ate primary, help­ing con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an Richard Mour­dock dis­lodge six-term in­cum­bent Richard Lugar in May. The club es­tim­ated that total in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures by three of its en­tit­ies amoun­ted to 40 per­cent of all in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures dur­ing the fi­nal 30 days of the cam­paign.

Al­though con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates rev­el in a club en­dorse­ment, GOP es­tab­lish­ment­ari­ans with an eye on ma­jor­ity-mak­ing aren’t al­ways thrilled with its de­cisions. Lugar’s loss im­proved the gen­er­al-elec­tion pro­spects of Rep. Joe Don­nelly, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee. In late 2009, the group joined the con­ser­vat­ive re­volt against Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Dede Scozza­fava in the spe­cial elec­tion in New York’s 23rd Dis­trict, in­stead sup­port­ing Con­ser­vat­ive Party in­sur­gent Doug Hoff­man. The split on the right helped Demo­crat­ic Rep. Bill Owens win his seat with just 48.3 per­cent of the vote.

But anti­es­tab­lish­ment fer­vor fuels the club and oth­er con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions that wield fin­an­cial heft. The Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, which has spent $1.7 mil­lion on in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures in Sen­ate races so far this cycle, is the lead­er­ship PAC of con­ser­vat­ive Sen. Jim De­Mint, R-S.C., who openly prizes pur­ity over elect­ab­il­ity. “We of­ten sup­port un­der­dog can­did­ates who have been over­looked or even op­posed by the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment,” said Matt Hoskins, the PAC’s spokes­man.

That max­im re­ver­ber­ated in Neb­raska’s Sen­ate primary, where De­Mint en­dorsed Don Sten­berg against Jon Brun­ing, who had been the front-run­ner in the race to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Sen. Ben Nel­son. Sten­berg raised a paltry $53,000 dur­ing the third quarter of 2011, but after De­Mint’s en­dorse­ment at the end of the year and a nod from the Club for Growth in 2012, Sten­berg’s fun­drais­ing bal­looned to $244,000 in the first quarter of this year. The battle between Sten­berg and Brun­ing, however, al­lowed Deb Fisc­her, ar­gu­ably the least con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate in the field, to eke out a plur­al­ity win in the primary. Mean­while, in Texas, De­Mint and the club helped Ted Cruz force quint­es­sen­tial in­sider Dav­id Dewhurst in­to a late-Ju­ly run­off.

The suc­cess of De­Mint and the an­ti­tax group is a test­a­ment to strength where oth­ers haven’t fared as well. The lead­er­ship PAC of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, whose en­dorse­ments of­ten at­tract me­dia cov­er­age, has dis­trib­uted less than $15,000 to can­did­ates this cycle. All Lee has to of­fer en­dorsees is his name, and that can’t sway voters in Texas and Neb­raska the way a 30-second ad can.

Money is a good gauge of a group’s power, but not just be­cause it trans­lates in­to ex­pens­ive me­dia buys. Freedom­Works, af­fil­i­ated with former con­ser­vat­ive House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Dick Armey, R-Texas, is geared to­ward voter-mo­bil­iz­a­tion ef­forts and or­gan­iz­a­tion. The group casts a wide net and uses an af­fil­i­ate to spend against Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents even be­fore its PAC en­dorses against them. “The ad­vant­age we bring is a little dif­fer­ent, in that what we bring are real people to the table,” said Freedom­Works Vice Pres­id­ent Russ Walk­er.

The group has spent more than $2 mil­lion on ex­pendit­ures in con­gres­sion­al races this cycle, in­clud­ing more than $800,000 in Utah against Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Or­rin Hatch. Freedom­Works helped pre­vent Hatch from seal­ing up the nom­in­a­tion at the April state con­ven­tion but now must try to sway a lar­ger uni­verse of voters in a June 26 statewide primary between Hatch and Dan Liljen­quist, a former state sen­at­or who won the group’s en­dorse­ment.

Freedom­Works, like the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund and the Club for Growth, would be a non­factor if not for money. En­dorse­ments still mat­ter, but the days of party bosses and ma­chines de­liv­er­ing votes are fad­ing. Nowadays, it’s a cash game. 


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