GOP group focused on policy, not party
HARRISBURG — A conservative interest group is working to “improve the gene pool” in Congress, a spokesman said.
But the typical target of this group is unusual: Republicans.
The Washington-based Club for Growth often targets GOP lawmakers who stray from a conservative philosophy on tax, spending and free-trade issues. Its willingness to take on Republicans in primaries sets it apart.
“Party is not our focus,” said Chris Chocola, the Club's president. “Policy is our focus. There is no question it makes the Republican establishment unhappy.”
Founded in 1999 by economist Stephen Moore, the nonprofit organization, with a super PAC to support conservative candidates, “is a significant power player” in national politics, said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University.
Last week's come-from-behind Republican primary victory in a Texas Senate race was a classic Club for Growth campaign.
The Club backed Ted Cruz, who ran against the Republican establishment and defeated David Dewhurst.
The Club spent $5 million on Cruz's behalf, the most it has devoted to a single race, and gave $1 million to him directly.
In November's general election, the group is targeting only one Pennsylvania congressional race: the 12th District, in which Republican Keith Rothfus, an Edgeworth attorney, will try to unseat Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown.
The Critz-Rothfus race is considered a toss-up, according to Washington analyst Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Report. How much the Club will donate to Rothfus remains to be seen, Rothenberg said.
Mike Mikus, spokesman for Critz, considers the Club's endorsement “a negative for Mr. Rothfus.”
“(Club for Growth) supports unfair trade deals that ship jobs overseas,” Mikus said. “People here want fair trade, not free trade.”
Jon Raso, a spokesman for Rothfus, called Mikus' charge “another shameful attempt (by Critz) to deceive the people of Western Pennsylvania” and distract them from failed economic policies that Critz supported. Critz's support of President Obama's policies helped ship jobs overseas, Raso said.
The Club's reputation in political circles comes from its willingness to thin the Republican herd and the success of its former president, Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh County, a businessman and former U.S. House member before his election two years ago to the Senate.
‘Improve the gene pool'
In 2004, Toomey came within 17,000 votes of beating Sen. Arlen Specter in a Republican primary even though the GOP establishment, including President George W. Bush and then-Sen. Rick Santorum, supported Specter.
The Club considered Specter a Republican-in-name-only, or “RINO,” and a liberal Republican who had to go, said Barney Keller, Club's spokesman. By 2010, Specter changed his party registration to Democrat and lost the primary to former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. Toomey, who was the Club's president from 2005 through 2009, defeated Sestak in the general election. The Club for Growth spent $2.6 million on Toomey's behalf.
Toomey's near-upset of Specter eight years ago was the prelude to the Tea Party movement and the first big battle in a GOP civil war, Philadelphia magazine said in its July edition. That campaign, the magazine said, made Toomey “a darling of the conservative intelligentsia.”
The Club spent about $20 million in 2010 and 2012, Keller said. Its goal is to change Congress by electing fiscal conservatives who do more than talk a good game and to “improve the gene pool,” Keller said. To keep returning members to Congress who don't vote the way they promised is “foolish,” he said.
Conservative interest groups are more successful at this approach than liberal groups, Dagnes said. Conservative super PACs outspend liberal ones by a 4-1 margin. The Washington Post reported in May.
The Club often picks underdogs and measures its success by the message an unexpected victory sends to members of Congress.
“We are inherently a risk-taking organization,” said Keller. He said an overall won-lost record for Club races is not available.
“They've had spectacular successes and some stumbles along the way,” said Harrisburg-based GOP consultant Charlie Gerow. “The Republican establishment is always going to be wary of folks who want to beat incumbents.”
“The actual won-lost record only tells part of the story,” said Toomey. “When the Club comes in and succeeds in a high-profile, dramatic victory, it sends a big message to rest of the political class.”
Critics say the Club is more concerned with ideology than with the pragmatism often needed to win general elections.
“Some frustrated Republicans joke they should be called the ‘Club for Democratic Growth,'” said Shira Toeplitz, politics writer for Roll Call in Washington.
That's the rap on the Club — it props up conservative candidates in primaries who either can't win in general elections or fail to get comparable Club support in general elections, said Kyle Kondik, an editor of The Crystal Ball, a publication at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
To counter naysayers, Chocola points out that analysts and GOP leaders predicted that Toomey might win a primary but was too conservative to win a general election.
Yet, analysts cite other Club losses.
Club-backed Republican Sharon Angle, who won a three-way primary but lost in 2010 to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. It supported Republican Tim Walberg over Rep. Joe Schwarz in a Michigan primary in 2007; Walberg won the primary but lost the general election to Democrat Mark Schauer. In Maryland, Andy Harris defeated Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in a 2008 GOP primary but lost to Democrat Frank Kratovil.
Walberg and Harris won the seats in the next election cycle.
“If the district is safely a Republican seat, picking primary winners can work and it helps force the national party incrementally to the right,” said Reid Wilson, editor of The Hotline in Washington. “But sometimes it backfires and nominates a Republican who is too conservative for the district.”
What the Club does, however, it does well.
“I've seen them boost underdogs to win out of nowhere,” said Toeplitz.
The Club helped challenger Richard Mourdock defeat veteran GOP Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana, spending $2 million on Mourdock's campaign.
A complex series of factors, and not the support or lack of support by a single interest group, often determine the outcome of elections.
The Republican Party's focus needs to be on beating “liberal Democrats,” Gerow said — though he concedes that occasionally a “RINO” might need ousting.
“The Club has gone a long way in driving a consensus among Republican candidates and officials and to expand economic freedoms,” said Toomey.
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.