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
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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