It’s rare, but sometimes an advertisement in Roll Call says as much about the state of congressional political infighting as our coverage.
Such was the case Wednesday. Page 7 provided an exceptionally tart and juicy morsel of insight into the Republican civil war’s summertime state of play.
The sarcastically gleeful full-page ad was the handiwork of Main Street Advocacy, which exists to stick up for the establishment wing of the GOP in part by promoting the re-election of House and Senate incumbents. The butt of the ad was the Club for Growth, which seeks to defeat those same lawmakers whenever they stray from the strictest of party fiscal orthodoxies.
For this year, anyway, the contest is shaping up as a total rout. One of the most influential players in the tea party movement created a special campaign to take out 10 House members — and every one of them was re-nominated with varying degrees of ease. In other words, a perversely “perfect” political showing.
“Main Street Advocacy congratulates our friends at the Club for Growth,” the ad declares in big type, likening the 0-10 record to such exceptional sports feats as Don Larsen's perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, the Miami Dolphins' perfect NFL season in 1972 and the Indiana Hoosiers men's basketball team's perfect season in 1976.
The last of those snide analogies was surely a jape aimed squarely at the president of the insurgent group, Chris Chocola, who represented Indiana in the House for two terms from 2003 to 2006.
The mockery was all the more pungent because it was directed toward a former member by one of his previous House colleagues. Main Street Advocacy’s president is Steven C. LaTourette, who represented Ohio for nine terms but retired in 2012 so he could get some distance from the increased polarization of the Capitol. Stylistically as well as ideologically, the two are about as different as a pair of baby boomer Republicans can be, with LaTourette as rumpled and centrist as Chocola is coiffed and conservative.
Beyond the jocular and score-settling tone of the ad, LaTourette offered a more sober summary of the point his group is seeking to make. “The club's influence is based on a perception of their ability to bigfoot Republican primaries that no longer gels with reality,” he said in a statement. “Republican members should feel free to vote the way their head and district dictate, without fear of score cards, litmus tests and Club for Growth threats.”
Asked for the club’s response, spokesman Barney Keller hung up after saying: “What’s Main Street Advocacy? Never heard of them. That’s my response. Bye-bye.”
What’s curious is what took the mutual enmity and condescension so long to bubble to the surface. The Club for Growth got plenty of initial ink for its Primary My Congressman campaign, but none of the 10 chosen GOP victims ended up with a serious scare. The most intense race was against Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, but $500,000 in club spending did not help attorney Bryan Smith take more than 38 percent in May. (A Main Street super PAC run by LaTourette came to Simpson’s defense with a six-figure buy for a TV spot that took the Club for Growth to task.)
As for the club’s two most recent targets, Rep. Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma took 83 percent in June against a field of weak candidates, one of whom asserted the congressman had died and had been secretly replaced by a CIA doppelganger. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, whom the club hoped to force into a runoff this week, ended up without any primary opponent at all.
And, most notably of all, the group’s backing of state Sen. Chris McDaniel was not enough for him to defeat Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi.
The club has scored a couple of wins by waiting until the runoff to take — or switch — sides. Its second choice to replace retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus in Alabama, conservative activist Gary Palmer, won almost certain election to Congress in Tuesday’s runoff after vanquishing the candidate the club liked better, surgeon Chad Mathis, in the first round. And the club got behind the insurgent candidacy of former federal prosecutor John Ratcliffe, but only after he made it into the Texas runoff he ultimately won against Rep. Ralph M. Hall.
But the biggest establishment incumbent GOP scalp claimed this year by the tea party faction? The club decided it was not worth taking on Majority Leader Eric Cantor in central Virginia, so Dave Brat owes it no debt of gratitude when his out-of-nowhere journey concludes with his arrival in Congress next year. (To be fair, none of the other insurgency groups came to Brat’s aid – even after Cantor defied demands that he skip the Main Street group’s annual retreat in April.)
"It might be OK for a monastery, but it's not OK if you ever want to set policy," LaTourette said in explaining his view of conservative purity during a debate with Chocola in March about the GOP’s future.
"I would argue that outside groups are rational actors, and the established Republicans are the extremists," Chocola replied at the event, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
The Republican family feud is far from a settlement, and for now these two are its most recognized insider aces. Both seem content to use the fight as a way to keep sharpened the skill for pointed political communication each honed in the House.