- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009


The Club for Growth, champion of low taxes, fiscal responsibility and free market economics, isn’t exactly a household name, but it will be a major political force to be reckoned with in the 2010 midterm elections.

It has been around for at least several decades, quietly supporting House and Senate candidates who embrace pro-growth economic policies, but it has begun to play a much more visible role in Republican politics in recent elections - often backing conservative insurgents spurned by the Republican Party establishment.

Their growing power and influence stems from their ability to raise tens of millions of dollars for like-minded candidates to jump-start underfunded campaigns and to pump money into TV ads in key battleground states and district races to advance their agenda.

The Club’s latest battlefield is in the Florida where Republican Gov. Charlie Crist appeared to be cruising toward the open Senate seat that seemed all but within his grasp. But that changed when the club decided to get behind former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a personable, charismatic, conservative challenger who pounded Mr. Crist for endorsing the Democrats’ nearly $800 billion economic spending stimulus bill that has created few if any new private-sector jobs.

Mr. Rubio’s dark-horse candidacy was making headlines earlier this year, but he was running far behind the popular governor in the polls. That changed when the club got into the race, bundling campaign contributions for Mr. Rubio and running a TV ad that drew blood in the Crist juggernaut, threw his campaign on the defensive and began narrowing the gap in the polls.

Mr. Crist had begun denying he endorsed President Obama’s stimulus until the club’s ad showed him fully embracing the bill as he stood by Mr. Obama at a Florida rally earlier this year to promote the recovery plan.

“The club is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for taxpayers and has enormous credibility in the business and fiscal conservative community here,” Alex Burgos, chief spokesman for the Rubio campaign, told me. “Their endorsement helped us in urging voters not to stay on the sidelines.” The club’s president is former Rep. Chris Chocola, Indiana Republican, who took over its helm when former Rep. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, stepped down to make another try for the Senate next year. The club is supporting him, too.

Mr. Chocola told me the club spent roughly $24 million in the 2008 election cycle, but he expects the amount will be sharply higher in the 2010 cycle, as will its list of candidates, at a time when the party out of power historically makes gains in Congress in the midterm elections.

“We anticipate spending significantly more in this election cycle. 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,” Mr. Chocola said.

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

That’s what happened in New York’s special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District when the club supported Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava, who dropped out of the race days before the election, endorsing the Democrat Bill Owens. The resulting split in the Republican Party’s rank-and-file allowed Mr. Owens to narrowly win an open seat that had been held by Republicans since 1872.

But the club is undeterred by its loss, seeing it as another strategic shot across the bow of the party’s establishment that it stands ready to challenge Republican candidates who are badly out of step on pro-growth economic issues.

“We are not afraid of supporting an underdog” and taking on party-establishment candidates, Mr. Chocola said.

That kind of principled, bare-knuckled politics not only appeals to the party’s conservative base, but also to many of its veteran campaign warriors, like campaign adviser Dave Carney.

“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, who is advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election campaign.

“The Club for Growth was there in the foxholes fighting the fight over the last few cycles and they will be even more influential because these fiscal and economic issues are going to be front and center in this election cycle,” he said.

The party establishment tends to hate party primary fights because they can be divisive, costly and may weaken a candidate. But they also give the voters choices that are all too often missing in the election process.

Mr. Chocola thinks our elections need a lot more choices and in warning shot across the Republican Party’s bow he says he wants congressional incumbents “to think very carefully” about his organization before they cast their votes on fiscal and economic issues.

“We think that votes have to consequences,” and the club’s powerful fundraising might to finance underdog conservative challengers “can be the consequences,” he said.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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