Club for Growth Turns Its Attention to Congress

The group could make 10 more House race endorsements.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left, speaks at the winter meeting of the free-market Club for Growth winter economic conference as Club president David McIntosh sits at right at the Breakers Hotel on Feb. 26, 2015, in Palm Beach, Fla.
AP Photo/Joe Skipper
June 6, 2016, 8 p.m.

After spending millions battling Donald Trump in the presidential primary, the Club for Growth has switched gears and is now expanding its slate of congressional endorsees, according to the group’s president David McIntosh.

In an interview last week at the Club’s office in downtown Washington, McIntosh said the fiscally conservative powerhouse hopes to add eight to 10 more House candidates to its current roster of five, easily exceeding the nine House races it was involved in for the 2014 midterms. In the Senate, McIntosh said the group will do everything in its power to protect two vulnerable allies and boost two Senate hopefuls through competitive primaries and general elections.

Though shaping Congress has long been the Club’s focus, the group made its first foray into the presidential arena this year with ads assailing Trump. Now resigned to a White House campaign between two candidates it views as enemies of the free-market, free-trade agenda, McIntosh said the Club is doubling down on its effort to protect and increase its ranks in Congress.

“From our perspective, there’s no good choice for president, so it’s very important we focus on the Senate and House races,” McIntosh said of the refocused strategy, which he outlined to the group’s board in a memo last week.

McIntosh said the Club has extended its vetting process to find candidates in open seats and estimated that it will be engaged in about a dozen races. That exceeds the Club’s midterm targets, while also staking out a distinctly different strategy. The group best known for waging war against GOP incumbents in primaries has announced just a single Republican target this cycle—Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, who meets her political fate Tuesday—in a nod to the fragility of the Republican majority, particularly on the Senate side.

In the battle to protect the Senate, McIntosh said the Club would instead play a big role in defending two of the party’s most endangered, Pennsylvania’s Sen. Pat Toomey, who is a former Club president, and Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson, for whom the Club committed to spend $2.5 million.

“I think [Johnson] can win,” McIntosh said of the first-term senator. “We need to be ready to pick up the slack to help him get over the finish line,” he added.

Additionally, the group is backing two House Freedom Caucus members, Florida’s Rep. Ron DeSantis and Louisiana’s Rep. John Fleming, in their crowded primaries for open Senate seats. Should either prevail, McIntosh said the Club is committed to helping them in the general as well.

McIntosh said the Club met with Senate hopeful Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada but ultimately took a pass, pointing to Heck’s lifetime Club score of 58.

“For him and for others thinking about running for the Senate, if you wind up with a 80 on our scorecard, versus a 90, in the House, we’re probably not going to get enthusiastic when you run for the Senate,” McIntosh said.

On the House side, McIntosh said the Club plans to be involved in more races than previous cycles, primarily in open seats. Even as it places a bigger emphasis on paths to victory along with ideology, McIntosh said his board is still eager to take chances in crowded races.

“You don’t have to win all the races,” McIntosh said the Club’s board likes to remind him. “We’ll identify someone we think is good, but we’ll watch a race and see if they raise the money he or she needs to and hire a good campaign so we know they’ll run a good race if we invest our members’ money.”

In Indiana, the Club endorsed Rep. Marlin Stutzman but eventually declined to spend money on his behalf after the congressman overhauled his Senate campaign staff midway through the primary. The board was “pleased when we endorsed, and pleased when we decided to save the resources,” McIntosh said.

That sort of freedom has allowed the group to get involved in a number of races it wouldn’t have otherwise. In North Carolina’s 13th District, the Club endorsed political newcomer Ted Budd, who McIntosh said didn’t “present as the strongest candidate, but has a path to victory” in a crowded open-seat race.

Of the group’s 2016 recruits, he praised Budd as an outsider who “knew what he stood for,” and Georgia state Sen. Mike Crane (running to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Westmoreland) who he said faced pressure in the state legislature but “has not buckled.”

McIntosh said some donors were turned off by the anti-Trump efforts, but he said he believes many will return for the group’s original goal of shaping Congress.

Club endorsees are free to back Trump in the general election, McIntosh said, noting that it wouldn’t be a smart strategy. In Crane’s race, he said he’s seen polling that 70 percent of Republican primary voters like Trump.

“For us to help Mike Crane means we’re not going to be attacking Donald Trump in that district,” McIntosh said. “Mike will do what he needs to do in his own independent race. But that’s an example of where Trump can help somebody.”

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