After endorsing Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana in July, the Club for Growth stopped bundling money for his Senate campaign within five months, citing concerns about the campaign’s leadership and Stutzman’s “discipline as a candidate.”
In a memo sent to the group’s board members Wednesday and shared with National Journal, Club President David McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana, outlined a nearly yearlong struggle for competency from a campaign once viewed as one of the fiscal-conservative group’s best opportunities on the Senate map.
“Ultimately, [we] decided against spending money on independent expenditures in this race because it appeared the shortcomings in Stutzman’s campaign were compounding,” McIntosh said in the memo.
The Club was far from alone in abandoning Stutzman, who lost by 34 points in the GOP primary Tuesday to national Republicans’ preferred candidate, Rep. Todd Young.
After being shut down in nearly every race they took on in 2014, conservative strategists this cycle pledged a new focus on getting qualified candidates to run. In three open-seat races—Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana—the conservative groups lined up behind three House Freedom Caucus members, touting them as part of their new promote-from-within-strategy.
But in the first of those Senate primaries, Stutzman was outspent 9-to-1 by Young and his allies. Groups that antagonized the tea party in recent years, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, steamrolled Stutzman with negative ads, spending a total of $2.5 million for Young. National Republicans saw Young as a stronger nominee against Democratic former Rep. Baron Hill, whom Young unseated in 2010. Among the cadre of conservative groups that supported Stutzman, only Citizens United Political Victory Fund ran radio ads for his candidacy.
So what happened to the new and improved strategy for the tea party? In interviews with a handful of conservative strategists, Stutzman allies lamented the missed opportunity—while putting most of the blame on a candidate they said “made his own luck.”
One national conservative strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said his group had planned to host a fundraiser for Stutzman but ultimately opted against it.
“It was an opportunity wasted,” the strategist said. “We could have and should have won if the candidate had run a more ideal campaign, without controversy, without baggage.”
In particular, Stutzman’s allies were irritated by staff turnover, Stutzman’s decision to join Democrats in a challenge to keep Young off the ballot, and a news report in the final weeks alleging he used campaign funds to pay for a family vacation. They also panned his team for not going after Young and allowing Stutzman to be cast as a political insider.
Jordan Gehrke, a conservative consultant who ran Sen. Ben Sasse’s campaign in Nebraska in 2014, penned a memo Tuesday titled “Candidates Matter,” in which he said that Stutzman “acted like once he had the support of” outside groups, “he did not have to do the work of running a good campaign.
“In Indiana, but in a Republican primary, in an outsider year when conservatives are so angry at Washington, DC, the decision not to define the campaign by getting to Young’s right and staying there is perplexing,” Gehrke wrote.
Young’s team of operatives from Cavalry LLC, aligned with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, take full credit for aggressively defining Stutzman early and turning him into a candidate even his conservative base couldn’t swallow.
Polling provided by Cavalry from the week before the primary showed self-described Donald Trump supporters viewing Stutzman as a “career politician” who spent “too long in politics.” The respondents repeated nearly in verbatim the digital attack ads the group targeted at voters searching or sharing information about Trump and Ted Cruz in the month leading up to the vote.
Along with the millions in TV ads, by specifically undermining Stutzman’s conservative credentials with voters turning out for outsider presidential candidates, Young consultant John Ashbrook said, they were able to minimize the impact of an expanded electorate that was expected to work in Stutzman’s favor.
“The most successful campaigns always define their opposition early,” said Ashbrook, who helped orchestrate a similar strategy for Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama earlier this year.
Conservative groups endorsed two of Stutzman’s fellow Freedom Caucus members in crowded Senate primaries for Republican-held open seats: Rep. Ron DeSantis, in the race to replace Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, and Rep. John Fleming for retiring Sen. David Vitter’s seat in Louisiana.
While conservative strategists point to successful candidates, such as state Sen. Jim Banks in the race for Stutzman’s House seat, as proof they’re still making progress this cycle, McIntosh’s letter issued a stern warning to future Club endorsees. The PAC, he wrote, would not be afraid to withdraw support from any candidate whose “campaign operations lack the capacity” necessary to run a winning race.
That sentiment was echoed by another strategist who said the decision to abandon Stutzman was reflective of a conservative movement that has grown more conscious of jeopardizing Republican seats in a volatile political environment.
“There’s concern about the Trump effect on down-ballot races, especially in a state like Indiana, where Republicans lost the Senate race in 2012,” the strategist said. “Stutzman was already making a lot of errors … that could be toxic in the general election.”