- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012

If longtime Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana loses his Republican primary Tuesday — which polls show is highly possible — several factors invariably will be blamed for his downfall: His advanced age (80); the aggressive campaign of his challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock; and the lawmaker’s moderate views, which increasingly rub against a party pulling to the political right.

But another key force behind Mr. Lugar’s troubles is the fiscally conservative, free-market Club for Growth, which relentlessly has pushed to oust the six-term senator.

“I think Dick Lugar is a fine man, but that doesn’t make him a fine senator at this point in the current political environment,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a fellow Indianan.

Mr. Lugar is just one many incumbent or party-backed moderate Republicans the influential group has targeted in recent congressional elections — with varying degrees of success.

In 2010, it backed Marco Rubio’s seemingly long-shot campaign for the Senate Republican nomination in Florida against then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the party’s early favorite. Mr. Crist’s campaign stumbled so badly he dropped out of the primary to run as an independent, and Mr. Rubio emerged victorious in the three-way general election.

The Club for Growth also endorsed Sharron Angle’s surprising victory in Nevada’s Republican Senate primary two years ago. She then lost to incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, the powerful Senate Democratic leader.

The club’s political arms spent about $8.6 million directly on candidates during the 2010 election cycle, and “bundled” another $6 million — contributions collected from club members and then directed to candidates.

The group spent about $2.6 million alone on televisions advertisements for the successful 2010 Senate campaign of Pat Toomey, a Republican and a former president of the group, and about $270,000 for TV ads backing Mr. Rubio.

The group expects to exceed its overall 2010 figures during the current election season.

“Our candidates are almost never the favorite; almost never the establishment candidate,” Mr. Chocola said. “But if we can see that with our help we will make a difference, then that’s when we get involved.”

Mr. Chocola, a former House member from Indiana, who lost a re-election bid in 2006 despite a Club for Growth endorsement, doesn’t apologize for attacking what he calls “incumbents behaving badly.”

“Our standards are high; our positions are uncompromising,” he said. “The D.C. crowd understands what we do, [but] they don’t always understand why we do it, because it’s really hard for establishment party folks to grasp or understand that we’re not in the business of electing Republicans.”

But many in the GOP establishment cringe at the Club for Growth’s attacks on party moderates, saying the approach is shortsighted and detrimental to the party because it can lead to far-right candidates winning primaries who then struggle in general elections.

“Their tactics are very brash and overboard and turn off a lot of Republicans,” said a GOP strategist, who, like many in the party, refuse to publicly criticize the group. “The [Republican] establishment just hates the Club for Growth. It’s more like the growth that won’t go away.”

A former Republican member of Congress, who also won’t speak on the record for fear of backlash, said some in his party derisively call the group “the Club for Democratic Growth.”

“Their priority is to invariably go with any conservative, anti-gay, pro-life Republican they can find,” the former lawmaker said. “It may be because that’s how they build their coalitions, but they are far from a socially moderate group. They endorse how the Christian coalition groups do.”

Mr. Chocola said it’s “OK” to lose some elections. “We don’t really keep a won-loss record. It’s not our measurement of success,” he said.

And Club for Growth endorsements often have a positive “ripple effect,” he said, citing Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s increasingly conservative voting record since fellow Utah Republican Robert F. Bennett, who the Club for Growth opposed as too moderate, lost his Senate seat to a conservative Republican challenger two years ago.

But moral victories are meaningless in politics, GOP insiders say.

“If you want to have a Republican majority, then you have to allow for some Republicans to be a little more moderate than others. You have to let the elected official match the state or district, and these guys don’t see it that way. That’s what’s frustrating,” the GOP strategist said.

Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising and recruiting arm of House Republicans for four years, said the Club for Growth’s attacks on House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a moderate Michigan Republican, are potentially destructive to the party.

“These attacks against Fred Upton could cost Republicans the House,” he said. “He’s a great team player and a prolific fundraiser for the party who is instrumental in bringing in money for [other candidates] who can’t rub two nickels together.”

Grover Norquist, founder and president of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, another fiscally conservative and influential group sometimes criticized by Republican insiders as too extreme, said it would be wrong to characterize the Club for Growth as a radical outfit that hurts the party.

“Their strategy is completely correct: Nominate the most Reaganite guy who can win in the primary and win in the general,” he said. “And that’s different in different states. You’ve got to grade on a curve.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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