Chris Chocola likes taking on his party’s establishment and beating it at its own game. That’s what he does for a living, and he has helped pull off some big upsets.
In 2007, the former two-term congressman from Indiana took the reins of the Club for Growth, a free-enterprise group that supports candidates who favor low taxes, oppose job-killing government regulations and seek fiscal policy reforms to expand and strengthen our economy.
When Mr. Chocola, who has a business background, became its president, the club was a relatively small organization, supported by about 35,000 contributing members. Under his leadership, it has mushroomed to nearly 100,000 donors and climbing. It has stayed lean and mean, with a staff of only nine people, plowing the bulk of its resources into key, carefully researched races. “We have very low overhead,” Mr. Chocola said.
He has been responsible not only for its financial growth but also for picking winners among candidates who were given little chance of beating establishment opponents in the GOP primaries — stunning political pros with come-from-behind victories.
In the 2010 Republican Senate race in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist was the odds-on favorite. His challenger, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, had little money, less name recognition and not much of an organization.
Mr. Chocola sank nearly $400,000 into Mr. Rubio’s campaign early in the race, giving him the resources to overcome Mr. Crist, who was a supporter of President Obama’s failed stimulus package and a man who was a Republican in name only. Mr. Crist made a last-gasp bid as an independent, but Mr. Rubio went on to stardom in the Senate and was on Mitt Romney’s shortlist for the vice presidency.
Another strategic opportunity opened up in 2010 in Pennsylvania, where an unpopular Sen. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party and became a Democrat in a losing effort to hold on to his seat. The club put its money behind former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, who was its president from 2005 to 2009, and put one of their own in the Senate.
The Club for Growth began in the 1980s as a group of Wall Street businessmen and free-market activists in New York who supported like-minded candidates. Over the years, they found that they could have a much bigger impact in the Republican Party primaries.
Mr. Chocola has since built on that strategy by focusing on a relatively small number of races — “under 20 candidates on average,” he said. “We tend to get involved where we can make a big impact.” By impact, he means replacing tired, go-along-to-get-along establishment politicians with challengers who want to replace failed, big-spending, big-government policies with pro-growth policies that work.
The club certainly did that last month in the Republican Senate primary contest in Texas, where Mr. Chocola made his biggest bet in the club’s history. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had the endorsement of most of the GOP establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry, for the seat of retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Tea party-backed challenger Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general, was expected to be the runner-up.
Mr. Chocola plowed $5.5 million into Mr. Cruz’s campaign. With the help of the Tea Party Express, also one of his big supporters, Mr. Cruz turned the race into a stunning upset. It wasn’t even close. Mr. Cruz, a hard-core conservative, crushed Mr. Dewhurst in the rowdy runoff election by 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.
The club also played a crucial role in the defeat of Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, ending a 36-year Senate career that had establishment politics written all over it. He was beaten by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock with the help of $4.5 million from outside groups.
Mr. Chocola goes to great lengths to emphasize what is really at stake in these contests. “Get better candidates and you get better policies. We’re trying to build a majority of fiscal conservatives.” In this year’s House and Senate races, “I think people are looking for something new,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘You guys aren’t making this a better place.’ They are for limiting the size of government, they want pro-growth policies.”
This could be the year when voters will be gearing up to make that change, particularly in Congress, which is extremely unpopular. Senate Democrats have a tenuous 53-47 seat majority. Republicans need a net gain of four to take control of the chamber, three seats if they win back the White House. With the Obama economy tanking, unemployment rising, national poverty rates climbing and the federal debt soaring to unprecedented levels, Harry Reid’s days as majority leader could be numbered. “Republican gains of two to four seats are likely at this point,” said election tracker Stuart Rothenberg.