For a decade, the Club for Growth aggressively spent millions of dollars supporting campaigns to elect free-market Members to Congress.
Now, the club is reaping the benefits with newfound relevance on Capitol Hill among Republicans, and nowhere is its influence more concentrated than on the super committee — to the chagrin of some of the more centrist Republican Members.
The cash-flush club is best known for influencing elections, sometimes spending heavily to target moderate GOP Members in favor of more conservative challengers. But politicking takes a backseat these days at the club, which has recently focused more on influencing the policy debate.
“I would say the club has had tangible impact on the policy direction of the Republican House and the Senate,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a Friday phone interview. “The debate has changed, the world has changed. We’re actually talking about how much less we’ll spend instead of how much more we’ll spend.”
Most notably, the club’s former president, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), has emerged as a top negotiator on the super committee.
Toomey drew up the GOP’s offer last week of $250 billion in revenue increases — part of a $1.2 trillion package that included lowering the marginal tax rate and extending the Bush-era tax cuts. Chocola, a former Indiana Congressman, said his group believes Toomey’s proposal to be “likely pro-growth” — a strong suggestion that it could receive the group’s blessing — but Democrats have publicly shot down that offer.
Chocola said he speaks regularly with Toomey and another super committee member, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), but he does not specifically lobby them on super committee negotiations.
“I don’t have to talk to those guys about what’s pro-growth. They know it,” Chocola said. “That’s exactly what the club does. When [our candidates] get into positions of influence, we have great comfort they will do the right thing.”
But some could argue that the club’s policy influence is felt more deeply through the stick than the carrot. The threat of a club-backed primary challenge looms large for many Members, including Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a super committee member who has received poor marks from the club for his voting record.
Earlier this month, club officials told reporters they were “impressed” with a potential Upton primary challenger, former state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, after meeting with him. Some Republicans criticized the club’s veiled threat in the middle of negotiations, including another Michigan GOP Member, Rep. Mike Rogers.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” Rogers said. “We’ve got tough decisions; we’re making tough negotiations in that committee. I just think it’s counterproductive. He’s going to win. Intimidation rarely works in this business, unless you’re the unions.”
If the super committee proves successful and the entire Congress must vote on the plan, the club will surely be monitoring the votes.
“They have a scorecard; they make sure everybody knows when there’s a key vote,” Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said. “They can come in and big-foot a primary. So yeah, they have an impact. People don’t want to face a primary opponent who’s a nobody but who all of a sudden gets a million dollars from a bunch of rich guys in New York.”
Much of the club’s policy efforts are a product of its success on the campaign trail in recent cycles. But this cycle, its hesitance to play politics is also a matter of circumstance.
Redistricting has postponed some of the club’s campaign activity as districts and races remain unsettled.
“We’re only in five races right now, and we’re waiting for the House districts to get finalized before we get in too many House races because we don’t know who’s running where,” Chocola said.
The club is more active in Senate races this cycle, but it hasn’t backed any challengers to incumbents yet — despite earlier threats this year.
Instead, the club endorsed Republicans in open-seat races and for Democratic seats, including ex-Rep. Mark Neumann in Wisconsin, Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz and Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.). So far, only two of those races appear to be big primary fights: Neumann’s bid against former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Cruz’s campaign versus Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
At the beginning of the cycle, the club threatened to target three sitting Senators: Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). So far, the club hasn’t endorsed challengers in those races, though it has spent advertising money against Lugar and Hatch.
Chocola warned of more endorsements, and he expects the club to spend more this cycle than last cycle on individual races.
But some Republicans confessed it might be for the best that the club is slow to jump into too many races. After all, in previous cycles, the club has successfully backed conservative Republicans in primaries — only to watch them lose in the general election to Democrats.
Even one of Chocola’s closest friends on Capitol Hill, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), admitted that sometimes the club misses its mark in its politics.
“I just think that, on occasion, you have to recognize that political realities mean people have to be free to do what they need to do,” Cole said. “But at the end of the day, they do more good than bad. But sometimes I think they mistarget.”