Can the Club Turn Its Primary Season Around?

After a weak start, the conservative group aims to score in Alabama and Georgia.

JACKSON, MS - JUNE 24: U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) speaks to supporters during his 'Victory Party' after holding on to his seat after a narrow victory over Chris McDaniel at the Mississippi Children's Museum on June 24, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi. Cochran, a 36-year Senate incumbent, defeated Tea Party-backed Republican candidate Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel in a tight runoff race. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
National Journal
Adam Wollner and Jack Fitzpatrick
July 14, 2014, 5:53 p.m.

After a rough start to the 2014 primary sea­son, the Club for Growth hopes to re­verse its for­tunes over the next week with wins in a hand­ful of open, safe-seat House GOP run­off elec­tions.

So far, the in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ive group has a los­ing re­cord in com­pet­it­ive primar­ies in which it has made en­dorse­ments this cycle. The club backed the even­tu­al win­ners in Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­at­ing con­tests in the Neb­raska Sen­ate race and in Texas’s 4th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, but its favored can­did­ates fell short in the Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate race, Idaho’s 2nd Dis­trict, and in the ini­tial round of vot­ing in Alabama’s 6th Dis­trict. (The group also en­dorsed Tom Cot­ton in the Arkan­sas Sen­ate race, but he ran un­con­tested in the May primary.)

On Tues­day, the club, one of Wash­ing­ton’s most power­ful out­side groups in Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies, gets to try again in Alabama, where it sup­por­ted Gary Palmer, cofounder of the con­ser­vat­ive non­profit Alabama Policy In­sti­tute, over state Rep. Paul De­Marco. The club’s first pre­ferred can­did­ate in the 6th Dis­trict — or­tho­ped­ic sur­geon Chad Math­is — failed to ad­vance.

The fol­low­ing week, the Club for Growth has a stake in two run­offs in Geor­gia. In the battle to suc­ceed Sen­ate hope­ful Jack King­ston in the 1st Dis­trict, the group is back­ing sur­geon Bob John­son over state Sen. Earl “Buddy” Carter. And in the 11th Dis­trict, state Sen. Barry Loudermilk has the club on his side in his ef­fort to suc­ceed Rep. Phil Gin­grey.

In the two races that ap­pear to be the closest — Alabama’s 6th Dis­trict and Geor­gia’s 1st Dis­trict — the club has backed up its en­dorse­ments with six-fig­ure tele­vi­sion ad buys down the home stretch.

In Alabama, the group has taken a wind­ing path to the fin­ish line. After watch­ing Math­is lose in the primary, it backed Palmer, who trailed early on but ap­pears to have surged ahead in the fi­nal weeks. He even led De­Marco nearly 2-1 in an auto­mated poll con­duc­ted by the GOP firm Cyg­nal, which is not work­ing for either can­did­ate, last week.

Palmer looked like an un­der­dog after fin­ish­ing second in the primary, 13 points be­hind De­Marco. But in late June and early Ju­ly, De­Marco un­der­went “the most pro­found self-de­struc­tion I have ever seen from a con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate,” said Cliff Sims, founder of polit­ic­al com­ment­ary web­site Yel­low­ham­mer News. De­Marco per­formed poorly in de­bates, was panned by the loc­al me­dia for dodging ques­tions, and over­re­acted by run­ning neg­at­ive ads that seemed to back­fire, Sims said.

Thanks to that series of un­for­tu­nate events, the club’s en­dorse­ment, and its more than $250,000 in spend­ing dur­ing the run­off, could push Palmer over the top in a close race. Sims said he ex­pects Palmer to win nar­rowly, des­pite the wide spread in the auto­mated poll.

While Palmer stayed out of the mud, air­ing al­most en­tirely pos­it­ive TV ads, the Club for Growth hit De­Marco with a TV ad on tax and fee hikes he sup­por­ted in the state Le­gis­lature.

And bey­ond his back­ing from the club, Palmer has an ad­vant­age in the fact that the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce hasn’t got­ten in­volved. The cham­ber and the club have lined up against each oth­er in a num­ber of GOP primar­ies this year — most not­ably, the Mis­sis­sippi Sen­ate race between Sen. Thad Co­chran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

“It’s a some­what unique situ­ation that Palmer not only has that kind of move­ment con­ser­vat­ive street cred, but also, the busi­ness com­munity looks at him as a think­ing man’s con­ser­vat­ive and not a ‘let’s burn everything down’ con­ser­vat­ive,” Sims said.

The cham­ber and the club are go­ing head to head in the con­ten­tious run­off in Geor­gia’s 1st Dis­trict, however. Carter, an elec­ted of­fi­cial for more than 20 years who has much of the state party es­tab­lish­ment in his corner, re­ceived an en­dorse­ment from the cham­ber last week. The busi­ness group has yet to spend any money on the race.

The club, mean­while, spent roughly $360,000 on TV ads at the be­gin­ning of the month call­ing Carter’s con­ser­vat­ive bona fides in­to ques­tion in hopes of boost­ing John­son, a polit­ic­al new­comer. John­son also won the back­ing of sev­er­al oth­er na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive groups, but none have come to bat for him in the way the club has. GOP strategists say the two can­did­ates are run­ning neck and neck en­ter­ing the fi­nal week of the cam­paign, so the late out­side spend­ing surge could help tip the bal­ance.

“These groups really in­flu­ence the out­come of cam­paigns by put­ting sub­stan­tial re­sources be­hind their chosen can­did­ates,” said Sean Don­nelly, a Geor­gia-based Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant who is cur­rently not af­fil­i­ated with any fed­er­al cam­paigns. “This is es­pe­cially true in Geor­gia this year with a donor base spread thin by an un­pre­ced­en­ted num­ber of fed­er­al can­did­ates run­ning.”

The club’s most iron­clad chance for vic­tory this month may lie in the Peach State’s 11th Dis­trict, where Loudermilk ap­pears to be in the driver’s seat against Bob Barr, a former House mem­ber and one­time Liber­tari­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. Re­cent in­tern­al polling from Loudermilk, who fin­ished first in the May primary, showed him lead­ing Barr by more than 20 per­cent­age points, and the club has so far chosen not to air any ads in the race.

Two oth­er House GOP run­offs over the next week haven’t garnered much at­ten­tion from na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tions. In North Car­o­lina’s 6th Dis­trict, where Rep. Howard Coble is va­cat­ing his seat at the end of the term, Rock­ing­ham County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Phil Ber­ger Jr., takes on Baptist pas­tor Mark Walk­er on Tues­day. And on Ju­ly 22, an­oth­er baptist pas­tor, Jody Hice, and busi­ness­man Mike Collins are vy­ing to take over in the 10th Dis­trict for out­go­ing Rep. Paul Broun.

After the Ju­ly run­offs, the Club for Growth will have its sights set on GOP primar­ies in Michigan, where the group is sup­port­ing Justin Amash’s bid for a second term, and in Kan­sas, where it is be­hind Rep. Mike Pom­peo as he tries to beat back a comeback bid from former Rep. Todd Ti­ahrt.

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