David Keating plans to bring some of the Club for Growth's scrappiness to the Center for Competitive Politics. As the new president of the center, he intends to grow its budget by about $1 million, expand its litigation team and may add a lobbying portfolio.
Keating, most recently the conservative club's executive director, last week became president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which, relying on a free-speech argument, opposes public financing of elections and limits on campaign contributions.
If super PACs had an advocacy group of their own, this would be it.
The center represented Keating in a court case against the Federal Election Commission — Speechnow.org v. FEC — that Keating and others cite, along with Citizens United v. FEC, as helping to give a legal blessing to super PACs.
Keating's background made the job move a natural transition, he said.
"Clearly, I have a love of the First Amendment and political speech and a lot of experience in running organizations and raising money," Keating said.
The Center for Competitive Politics is organized as a research and educational group, so Keating said it won't be in the business of endorsing candidates, as his former employer did. The center also cannot engage in much lobbying because of its nonprofit status, but it isn't prohibited entirely.
"We may be hiring a government relations staff," Keating told Roll Call. "A lot of times, lawmakers get some pretty strange ideas in their head about their ability to regulate speech."
Keating replaces Sean Parnell who, according to Bradley Smith, the center's chairman and co-founder, left to start his own consulting practice. "Sean had done a lot to get the organization up and running, and it was time to move on," Smith said. Parnell could not be reached for comment.
Smith said the center has had particular success in its litigation and is looking to better communicate its message and to step up its advocacy outside the courtroom.
"I think we've been an awfully effective organization, but we haven't done enough to trumpet our own horn," said Smith, a former FEC commissioner. "I do hope we'll be a bit more aggressive in setting the agenda rather than responding to the agenda."
But the focus on litigation will continue. "We're definitely going to be beefing up our legal team," Keating said. "There are plenty of unconstitutional laws out there just begging to be struck down."
The center's opponents say the stepped-up PR effort is unlikely to sway public opinion in favor of super PACs or unrestricted money in politics.
"They've helped develop a jurisprudence that is devastating the function of our democracy and directly advancing the interests of giant corporations and a handful of superwealthy individuals," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "We don't need more of that."
But more of that is exactly what Keating and Smith have in the works.
The Center for Competitive Politics' annual budget is around $1.7 million, and Smith said he's aiming to increase that amount by $1 million within two years.
"This will be a time of pretty aggressive expansion of the litigation and public affairs side," Smith said. "We're going to try, in this presidential election year, being more aggressive, showing on a quick-time basis how the [campaign finance] laws, rather than helping, are actually screwing things up. And David's hiring is certainly a starting point."
Smith said that it was unlikely the center will start a new offshoot for lobbying, but he didn't rule it out. The Club for Growth, during Keating's tenure, set up different entities, and Keating said he did innovative things in terms of the organization's structure.
As for its advocacy work, Smith said the center is keeping watch at the state level where campaign finance reformers have turned in part because of gridlock in Congress.
"We have to go where the action is," Smith said. "State governments can do an awful lot to chill speech."
Keating, who joined the Club for Growth in 2000, said he spent the early years there helping to build its membership. He plans to stay on as an adviser on structural issues and fundraising, he said.
For its part, the club, which has acquired a scrappy image over the years by backing more conservative primary opponents against incumbent GOP Members, declined to comment on when or even whether Keating will be replaced. But the club's spokesman, Barney Keller, said Keating had been "instrumental ... in steering the club as far as our policy positions went."
Keller added that Keating put together the club's scorecard, which rates the voting records of Members of Congress. The group then used that scorecard to help determine which lawmakers did not pass muster.
And on the political front, he added, "Super PACs don't exist without David Keating."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.