The Club for Growth has joined national Republicans’ efforts to hold the Senate after years of boosting conservative outsiders over party favorites. But it has one more establishment politician it hopes to defeat.
The Republican primary in Wisconsin on Tuesday to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin will close the Club’s most expensive intraparty effort of the cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. Its political arm spent $2.4 million on independent expenditures to defeat state Sen. Leah Vukmir, favoring instead management consultant Kevin Nicholson.
The Club’s only other target to rival that amount so far is Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
“We’ve come to know Wisconsin,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said Wednesday, recalling the group’s effort to successfully reelect Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016. “That whole experience has given the Club, and me personally, a real feel for what it takes to win in the general election there against a strong Democrat.”
The Club endorsed Nicholson almost a year to the day before the Aug. 14 primary. Shipping magnate and GOP mega-donor Richard Uihlein poured in $2.5 million to the group’s Wisconsin affiliate, giving it the ability to air TV ads praising the Marine veteran and former College Democrats of America president as a political outsider and President Trump ally.
“He picks candidates that he wants to get behind, and he drives it to the hills,” one Wisconsin Republican strategist that isn’t working on either Senate campaign said of Uihlein. “And clearly that has had an impact on what Club for Growth is doing, because he wants to see Kevin Nicholson over the finish line.”
In all, Uihlein has given nearly $9 million to super PACs playing in the primary against Vukmir, who has the support of the state party, Gov. Scott Walker’s family, and Speaker Paul Ryan, along with other members of the congressional delegation.
Ads targeting Vukmir accuse her of supporting “politicians hit with sexual-harassment claims” or “convicted of sexual assault.” The spots also call the conservative legislator’s pay raises and support for eminent domain “hypocrisy.”
“Club for Growth came in early spending a lot of money—chose one candidate. The grassroots, the county chairs, and the convention chose another,” Johnson said in a brief interview last month. “Is it going to be TV ads or miles put on a car that is going to win the day? I have no idea.”
Baldwin benefited six years ago in her first Senate bid from the Club’s decision to attack former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who advanced from the primary with little time and resources to compete.
“It was devastating,” Thompson adviser Bill McCoshen said. “They hammered us through the primary and we were able to make it through, but then we were bruised and broke.”
The group’s overall mission this cycle is to unseat Democratic senators. McIntosh said he had a role in “recruiting” Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, citing his ability to unite the wings of the party. Since then, the Club has aired TV ads, with the help of Missouri strategist Jeff Roe, that accuse McCaskill of voting for federal subsidies to her husband’s companies.
After launching negative attacks against Montana Republican Senate nominee Matt Rosendale’s primary opponents, the Club went on air last month against Sen. Jon Tester, saying the Democrat has “gone Washington.”
It endorsed Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who won her party’s nomination for former Sen. Bob Corker’s seat last week; discouraged Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam from running; and attacked former Rep. David Fincher, who dropped out of the race in February. McIntosh said he expects the group to support Blackburn in the general election against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“We’ve focused a lot of our efforts on the primaries—get the right Republicans,” McIntosh said. “But we’re now kind of mature enough, if you will, a big enough player that we’re also ... putting our oar in the water to help for the whole effort of keeping the majority.”
That’s a long ways away from cycles past, when the Club sponsored conservative upstarts like Texas Republican Ted Cruz’s bids for Senate and president, Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran, and Richard Mourdock’s successful takedown of Sen. Dick Lugar. The Club hasn’t endorsed McDaniel in his bid this year against appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
Two years after spending more than $8 million trying to stop Trump’s presidential nomination, the Club is now hoping to grow the Republican majority in the Senate by boosting Republican challengers—often by tying them positively to the leader of the party. The Club’s positive ads for both Nicholson and Rosendale both favorably compare the men to Trump.
McIntosh acknowledged the “irony” of the group’s conversion from a Trump skeptic to promoter, but emphasized that “we’re not like the Koch groups” that won’t support candidates that don’t “100 percent” align with their free-market ideology.
“With the exception of the tariffs,” McIntosh said of Trump, ”he’s basically leading with our agenda.”