Campaigns

It’s no longer all about Republican primaries for the Club for Growth

The club played in more general elections in 2018 and expects that to continue in 2020

David M. McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, believes his group needs to play in general elections, not just Republican primaries. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo) 

The Club for Growth has long been an arbiter of crowded primaries in safe Republican seats, but its role is evolving in the era of President Donald Trump. 

The group’s super PAC and PAC are still major players in internecine battles — the club successfully torpedoed a candidate in a Pennsylvania nominating convention over the weekend and is already interviewing candidates for two House special elections in North Carolina. 

But with Trump making his own Twitter endorsements, the once anti-Trump Club for Growth is no longer the major king-maker on the GOP scene. At the same time, it’s playing the long game by staying engaged beyond primaries. The club’s super PAC spent in more general elections last cycle than it ever has before and expects that trend to continue in 2020.

“It really shows a paradigm shift for the Club For Growth,” David McIntosh, the group’s president, said last week.

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The club’s general election activity was, in part, an indirect effect of the Trump presidency, which put at stake many longtime GOP House districts that hadn’t been in play before. Next year, the club will be looking to win back some of those seats, including Virginia’s 7th District, South Carolina’s 1st and Utah’s 4th, as well as watching for retirements.

A new experience 

The most basic reason the club stepped up its involvement in general elections last cycle was necessity — Democrats were threatening their candidates — and the group wanted to see its mission through.

“To be effective conservatives, we need to be part of the majority. You can’t just play in primaries,” said McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman.  

Democrats targeted incumbents the club had backed, such as Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry, North Carolina’s Ted Budd and Virginia’s Dave Brat. And in some open seats like Texas’ 21st, once reliably Republican, the club’s pick needed helping getting through November. 

“The result of that is that we had to learn an additional set of skills,” McIntosh said of keeping Republican voters engaged through the general.  

Freshman Democrats, especially those in seats Trump won in 2016, are on the club’s 2020 radar. The group has already deployed field teams to start identifying strong candidates. It is especially excited about state Del. Nick Freitas in Virginia’s 7th District, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger unseated Brat last year. 

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“If he decides to run, we will invest more money there than any House race in the history of the club,” Tom Schultz, vice president of campaigns, said this week. 

The club’s PAC has already started bundling for five incumbents that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting: Texas’ Chip Roy, Ohio’s Steve Chabot, Arizona’s David Schweikert, Budd and Perry. 

At the Senate level, Club for Growth Action developed state specific affiliates for the first time last cycle. Wisconsin, Montana, Missouri and Tennessee all had their own super PACs. The group’s candidates won the general election in Missouri and Tennessee, lost the general in Montana and lost the primary in Wisconsin. Club for Growth Action also spent for Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.

As for 2020 races, the only senator the club has endorsed so far is Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. The PAC will look at bundling for Georgia’s David Perdue and Montana’s Steve Daines. Spending in Alabama and Kansas will depend on who the GOP candidates are, but not spending in those races would free up the group’s political arms to spend more on general elections in House districts. 

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

Primary power plays

The club has traditionally exercised its muscle in Republican primaries.

Take North Carolina’s 13th District, for example. In 2016, amid the chaos of mid-decade redistricting, 17 Republicans, most of them little known, filed to run for what was an open seat. The club plucked firing range owner Ted Budd from obscurity and ran TV ads on his behalf. Budd won the primary with just 20 percent of the vote.

The club continued to play that role in 2018 primaries, when support for Trump became a litmus test for conservatism. (Ironically, the group had spent $7 million against Trump in 2016, before he won the nomination.) 

In Texas’ 21st District, where the club was backing Roy in the 2018 primary, it attacked William Negley for having “liked” tweets about Evan McMullin’s independent bid for president. “Bill Negley was wrong about the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” one ad said. 

The club declined to endorse candidates who were strongly anti-trade. It was more lenient with candidates who tried to find middle ground between supporting the president and opposing tariffs. 

The group was occasionally at odds with the White House last cycle. On primary day in South Carolina, Trump endorsed state Rep. Katie Arrington in the 1st District. The Republican incumbent Mark Sanford had a high score from the Club for Growth but said he didn’t need primary assistance, according to the club. He lost. Arrington, whom the club found to be out of step with their issues, then fell short in the general.

For the club, ideology — rather than identity — is still paramount. With the number of women in the House Republican Conference falling this year, new groups like New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s leadership PAC are promising to help elect women, of all ideologies, in GOP primaries. The club supports women — it championed Marsha Blackburn in her Tennessee Senate win and Bunni Pounds, who lost a Texas House primary runoff, for example — but only if they align with its issues. 

2019 spending

The club’s super PAC has already racked up one victory this year — in Pennsylvania’s 12 District, where the Republican nominee in the special election to replace former GOP Rep. Tom Marino is likely to be the next member of Congress.

In the days before the Republicans’ March 2 nominating convention, Club for Growth Action sent four mailers to the convention conferees and alternates attacking state Rep. Jeff Wheeland. It also mailed a packet of opposition research on Wheeland to each of the conferees’ homes. Wheeland ended up withdrawing the morning of the convention, calling the attacks from the club the “perfect hit job.”

The club has been polling in some primary races, too, testing the field for its preferred candidates before they’ve even announced. Late last month, the club released polling showing Montana’s Matt Rosendale leading a hypothetical primary for the state’s at-large House seat. And in Alabama, it released a poll a few hours ahead of Bradley Byrne’s Senate announcement showing him tied with Gary Palmer, whom the club would like to see run. 

In the two North Carolina special elections — one of which is an open seat because of election fraud tied to the club-backed Mark Harris — the group will have another chance to pick favorites. It hopes to make any primary endorsements there by April 1. 

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