- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chris Chocola is giving fair warning.

The president of the Club for Growth and former Indiana congressman wants lawmakers, especially Republicans, to think very carefully about his conservative organization before they cast their votes on economic issues, because he could be coming after them in the 2010 midterm elections if they vote the wrong way.

“We think that votes have to have consequences,” and the Club for Growth’s enormous fundraising capacity to finance insurgent conservative candidates in Republican Party primaries “can be the consequences,” Mr. Chocola said.

“We want [candidates] to think about us in way that encourages them to vote for a pro-growth agenda. If they aren’t supporting a pro-growth agenda, then we start to pay a lot of attention to them. We study their voting record very closely,” he added.

With a small staff and a single office on L Street in Northwest Washington, the organization has had an outsized impact on key elections since its founding a decade ago.

While hundreds of interest groups and political action committees pick favored candidates and raise campaign cash every year, a Club for Growth endorsement can generate instant headlines in the political press, and the group’s strategy puts it at the center of a sharp internal debate on the right over the best way to reclaim influence and political power.

Already in this election cycle, its picks have had a profound influence on races for a Pennsylvania Senate seat, an open House seat in upstate New York and a hotly contested Republican primary for the Senate seat opening up in Florida.

“They are a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for taxpayers, and it has enormous credibility in the business and fiscal conservative community,” said Alex Burgos, chief spokesman for the campaign of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.

The Club for Growth’s endorsement of Mr. Rubio in the Republican Senate primary over establishment candidate and sitting Gov. Charlie Crist has helped propel the intraparty fight into one of the most closely watched early contests of the 2010 midterm election cycle.

Some say the group’s influence is based on its record of success, even in difficult political times for Republicans.

“The Club for Growth was there in the foxhole fighting the fight over the last few cycles, and now I think they will be even more influential because these fiscal responsibility and economic issues are going to be front and center in the fight in this election cycle,” said David Carney, a veteran Republican campaign consultant who has been advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry, among other candidates.

But the Club for Growth’s prominence has also made it a target.

Former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee and has been one of the Club for Growth’s sharpest critics, said, “Their goal is to purify the Republicans in the House” by going after moderates and liberals, but the result has weakened the party overall.

“In a number of cases, they have lost a bunch of seats by nominating Republicans in the primaries who can’t win general elections. I don’t know how that helps the Republican agenda,” said Mr. Davis, who now heads the moderate-leaning Republican Main Street Partnership.

The go-to guy

Mr. Chocola, who served two terms in Congress before taking over the helm of the Club for Growth this year, has become the “go-to guy” for endorsements and money for a growing clientele of fiscally conservative Republican candidates for Congress. They are drawn by the Club for Growth’s ability to raise millions of dollars in campaign cash that the organization has selectively deployed to challenge and sometimes defeat liberal-to-moderate Republicans, with mixed results.

The Club for Growth’s PAC and individual members pumped roughly $24 million in the 2008 election cycle, by “bundling” campaign contributions for its favored candidates while also running independently financed issue-advocacy ads.

“We anticipate spending significantly more in this election cycle,” Mr. Chocola told The Washington Times.

Founded in 1999, the Club for Growth quickly made its presence felt on the national scene. Its focus on bread-and-butter issues of taxes, spending and the size of government have kept it largely free from the cultural and social issues that have proved divisive for the Republican Party in some races.

On its Web site, the Club for Growth says flatly that “social issues” are not considered when it is weighing whether or not to endorse a given candidate.

The Club for Growth has even proved a political steppingstone of sorts. Former Rep. Pat Toomey, Mr. Chocola’s predecessor, is the Republican nominee challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.

The Club for Growth’s strong support for its former leader is widely credited with helping Mr. Specter leave the Republican Party in late April. The five-term senator said he concluded he was not about to get the Republican nod to run for a sixth term.

“I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak,” Mr. Specter said in announcing his party switch.

Thus far, the Club for Growth has endorsed Republican candidates in three House and four Senate races, including incumbent Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Mr. Toomey and Mr. Rubio.

But the playing field is going to expand significantly over the coming months, Mr. Chocola said, in an election season in which Republicans hope to score major gains in Congress and reverse a disastrous slide in the previous two election cycles.

“The list will grow. Every week, we look at 30 or 40 races. But we are still in the primary season, and I suspect we will have more endorsements before the primary cycle is over. At some point, we’ll be looking at the general election where there are several opportunities there,” he said.

Club for Growth officials say their criteria for selecting candidates and races are principled and clear, and Mr. Chocola said the group is not afraid to target those candidates — of whatever party — who do not adhere to those principles.

“We are looking for champions of economic freedom and a candidate we agree with. And if there is a candidate in the primary that we have concerns about, then we are more likely to get involved in that race,” he said.

The Club for Growth’s efforts in some selected political battlegrounds have demonstrated its ability to be a major player in next year’s congressional contests, but have also rekindled Republican complaints that the Club for Growth’s decisions have hurt the Republican Party’s prospects in a number of races.

The Club for Growth’s endorsement and heavy financial support for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd Congressional District contest last month was a key factor in elevating his candidacy and driving Dede Scozzafava, a liberal Republican and the party’s official nominee, from the race.

But the split in the party’s ranks allowed Democrat Bill Owens to win a seat that the Republican Party has held since 1872 — a result that gave Club for Growth critics fresh ammunition to question the group’s approach.

The Club for Growth’s decision to endorse Mr. Rubio’s underdog challenge to Mr. Crist, who was recruited by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, has dramatically changed the complexion of the race. Some political analysts are already predicting that Mr. Rubio has the momentum and will win next year’s party primary.

Mr. Rubio, a charismatic, Ronald Reagan conservative, has been attacking Mr. Crist for raising taxes and endorsing President Obama’s nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill, effectively throwing the governor’s once-smoothly run campaign on the defensive.

At one point, Mr. Crist denied he had endorsed the stimulus bill, until the Club for Growth began running TV ads around the state showing him doing just that while standing next to Mr. Obama when he was promoting his economic recovery plan in Florida earlier this year.

The Club for Growth’s Rubio endorsement didn’t come easily. It followed intensive interviews with the candidate, extensive survey work and a thorough examination of his background.

Mr. Chocola said, “We take our endorsement process very seriously, based on polling and research. We are not afraid of an underdog. Underdogs do not disturb us. Our goal is will our endorsement make a difference in the race, will it help get the candidate across the finish line.”

The Club for Growth’s endorsement and support has been a major reason for Mr. Rubio’s climb in the polls, Mr. Burgos said.

Conservative political strategists are among the Club for Growth’s biggest boosters because of the group’s tendency to promote up-and-coming challengers who have been bypassed by the Republican Party establishment.

“I think they are a very influential force because they actually engage in primaries, and don’t tend to just go with the incumbents or just run an incumbent protection racket,” said Mr. Carney, the Republican political consultant.

“The party establishment hates the messiness of primaries where rank-and-file voters enjoy the opportunities to have a choice and fight incumbents, and that keeps everyone honest. The Club is a force to be reckoned with, whether you like them or not. They are perfectly positioned to have an impact in this cycle because a lot of congressmen and senators are going to face challengers next year,” he said.

Reaching out

Both political parties face a constant challenge of satisfying their ideological base while reaching out to less committed independents in the center. Mr. Davis is one who argues the Club for Growth is pulling the Republican Party in the wrong direction.

“I look at it this way: ‘Do you want the Republican Party to be a majority coalition or do you want them to be a private club with those who have to pass a membership test?’” he said.

“This is a diverse country, but the party has largely become regional. If you want to be a national party, there has to be some understanding that you have to be competitive in urban areas and in the Northeast and the West Coast,” he added.

Mr. Davis and other Club for Growth critics point to several House contests in recent years where the Club for Growth’s support for a more conservative candidate helped the Democrats win that seat, or where the Club for Growth’s candidate failed to hold the seat in the next cycle.

In 2008, for example, the Club for Growth targeted Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate lawmaker on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in a contest where he was defeated in the Republican primary by Club for Growth-backed conservative state Sen. Andrew P. Harris — who was in turn defeated by Democrat Frank Kratovil.

But Mr. Chocola said the criticism is overblown.

“There are people who want to criticize the Club for losing Republican seats, but if you look at the last two election cycles, they can only point to maybe three elections that we were involved in during that time,” Mr. Chocola said.

“Any criticism of the Club’s contributions to losses is a lack of understanding of the bigger problem the Republicans face in the last cycle. Republicans had lost their brand,” he said.

But some of the Republican Party’s campaign committees are now singing the Club for Growth’s praises, pointing to a number of races where they think the Club for Growth will help them win back House seats the Republican Party lost in 2008 in largely conservative districts.

“We welcome any organization that shares our goals of retiring [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and stopping the big government agenda that she and her party are imposing on American families,” said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees Republican House races.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas “has a strong relationship with former Rep. Chocola and looks forward to working with him — within the limits of the law — to defeat Democrats in 2010,” Mr. Lindsay said.

• Donald Lambro can be reached at dlambro@washingtontimes.com.old.

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