The Club for Growth thought it had dented Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s chances in Iowa with ads accusing him of being a false conservative, but the billionaire businessman has surged back to the lead in polls, showing a staying power that’s confounded pundits and fellow candidates.
The Club’s battle with Mr. Trump is shaping up as an early test of his campaign with little more than two months to go before Iowa holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
“We took out $1 million’ worth of ads to tell the voters about that record and point out … he’s the worst kind of politician who will say whatever he thinks you want to hear,” Club for Growth president David McIntosh said in a recent interview.
Those ads, run in September, accused Mr. Trump of supporting higher taxes and having a “very liberal” record.
And for a time they appeared to work, with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson taking the lead in Iowa polling. But the most recent surveys put Mr. Trump back on top, holding a 2-point lead over Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in a Quinnipiac University poll this week after trailing Mr. Carson by 8 points there last month.
The Club had no immediate reaction to Mr. Trump’s recent resurgence, but the group has started tailoring its attacks to specific issues that are key for early-state voters.
For example, the group recently attacked Mr. Trump as a political panderer, saying he supports the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which forces a certain level of gasoline to come from green sources — a boon for Iowa farmers whose corn gets turned into ethanol. Many conservatives say the fuel standard is a subsidy that amounts to the government picking winners and losers in the energy market.
Mr. Trump answered a question about the RFS at a banquet in Iowa earlier this year by saying that he is “totally in favor of ethanol.”
Mr. McIntosh said his group would continue to make voters aware of Mr. Trump’s record and hinted they could go back on the air.
“We’ll use a lot of the new social media and Internet but we’ll also consider going back on television when it’s appropriate as we get closer to the primary in New Hampshire and the caucuses in Iowa,” he said.
The political action arm of the influential conservative group often chooses sides, even in GOP primaries, to try to prevent Republicans they deem insufficiently conservative from getting elected.
Mr. McIntosh said they haven’t picked a candidate in the 2016 presidential race, though, so they’re not promoting anyone in particular by going after Mr. Trump.
“But we have said on the economic, pro-growth agenda, Donald Trump would be a disaster and the record shows it. It’s based on his own words that we are concerned about that,” Mr. McIntosh said.
The Club’s “white paper” on Mr. Trump’s record, released earlier this month, made similar points the ad campaign did, painting him as a supporter of government-run health care and eminent domain and an opponent of free trade.
Mr. Trump’s attorney threatened the Club with legal action in September over the ad campaign, which also included a past clip of Mr. Trump saying he probably identifies “more as a Democrat” in many cases.
“Rest assured we will not sit idly by and allow special interest groups and political action committees like yours to defame Mr. Trump and cause damage to his reputation and business interests by intentionally disseminating libelous statements you fully know to be untrue and, even worse, continue to purposely mislead the American people for your own financial gain,” attorney Alan Garten wrote to Mr. McIntosh in September.
Mr. McIntosh responded by saying they would not take the ads off the air and that Mr. Trump should “grow up” and “stop whining.”