FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The Club for Growth has made a name for itself trying to unseat GOP incumbents.
But this year, with its 2010 winners up for re-election, the conservative outside group is playing defense , largely conserving its resources for open-seat opportunities in which it thinks it can make a difference.
Its strategy in Indiana reflects an organization whose mission has evolved since 2010. The club has a chance to score three victories in the Hoosier State on Tuesday up and down the Republican ticket. But not all of those opportunities are created equal, and the club isn't treating them with equal love, either.
[Related: Outside Conservative Groups Playing Defense This Cycle] The club is all in for 3rd District candidate Jim Banks, who's on track to become its second primary victor of the year. But at the Senate level, the group's enthusiasm for Rep. Marlin Stutzman has waned. Meanwhile, at the presidential level, the group has invested $1.5 million in the state to slow down Donald Trump — which recent polling suggests isn't likely to pay off.
Perhaps nowhere was its old legacy felt more than in Indiana, where the club backed then-state Treasurer Richard Mourdock against longtime GOP Sen. Dick Lugar in 2012. Mourdock's comments about rape lost him the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
This cycle, the club has played in fewer House and Senate contests, backing only two challengers at the House level and none at the Senate level. (State Sen. Kyle McCarter failed to unseat Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, and in North Carolina, Jim Duncan had to pull out of the primary against Rep. Renee Ellmers because redistricting drew him out of the 2nd District).
In some cases, the club's defensive role has put it in the unfamiliar position of siding with the so-called establishment.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the club's super PAC aired a TV ad attacking Katie McGinty the morning after her Democratic primary victory (they'd prepared a similar hit against Joe Sestak). The incumbent, GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, is a former president of the club. On Thursday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose stance on economic issues often pits it against the club , launched a TV ad backing Toomey.
But even in open-seat races, the Club for Growth is selective about where it plays, waiting for candidates to prove their organizational and fundraising viability before endorsing them and swooping in with financial backing.
The overall strategy, group spokesman Doug Sachtleben said last week, remains the same as it's always been: candidates need to be conservative on the issues and have a path to victory. Many down-ballot candidates who have tried to tap into the outsider winds of the presidential race lacked the latter, and got into their race too late, Sachtleben said.
The Club for Growth currently stands behind four House candidates, one of whom became the group's first winner of the year in March. With $1 million in club assistance, Warren Davidson won a crowded special-election primary for John A. Boehner's old Ohio seat. It's a safe Republican district, so Davidson is likely its next representative.
[Related: Outsider candidate claims Boehner's old seat] Banks could be Club for Growth's second winner. A state senator and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Banks is running for the seat Stutzman is vacating to run for Senate, and should Banks win his four-candidate primary on Tuesday, he's almost surely to be the district's next representative.
One-on-one, Banks is a man of few words. Initially opposed to volunteer phone banking — “Maybe I’m too introverted or maybe it’s my personality, that it’s not something I get excited about doing" — he's since embraced the strategy as a way of driving a grassroots campaign. " We saw that he had a smart campaign put together. It was an easy decision," said Andy Roth, the Club for Growth's vice president for government affairs. [Related: Outside Groups Wage Ad War on Export-Import Bank] As of a week before the primary, the club's PAC had bundled about $200,000 for Banks. Polling of likely Republican primary voters conducted April 10-11 for his campaign showed him leading businessman Kip Tom by 10 points.
Club for Growth Action has followed up with reinforcements on television. The super PAC went on the air in Fort Wayne attacking Tom as a "Liberal Insider." And last week, the club added state Sen. Liz Brown to its hit list.
[Related: New Ad Could Change Indiana House Race Dynamic] Besides financial assistance, Banks said, the club's support helped him win the backing of other outside conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the House Freedom Fund. "It signaled to other conservative groups that I’m the best conservative in the race," he said. To reinforce his conservative credibility in the district, Banks has been trying to tap into Stutzman's base.
"All of our research suggests he has hardly any negatives among the Republican voters in the district," Banks said, suggesting that the Senate race will likely help his own fortunes on Tuesday. "Most of his supporters are my supporters and vice versa, at the national level and locally," Banks added. [Related: In Indiana, a Marine and a Farmer Duel for the Future of GOP] That was true initially. The club endorsed Stutzman, who has a 92 percent lifetime rating, last July, back when he still had well-respected GOP consultants working on his campaign. But last fall, Stutzman shook up his team.
“With the Trump phenomenon and the way the presidential primary was going, I felt it was more important to have someone on the ground knowing what’s going on here,” Stutzman said in defense of his decision to go back to an Indiana-based team he'd previously used.
Since then, though, the club has cooled on Stutzman . It continues to watch the race, Sachtleben said, but has not made a decision to do any independent expenditures. The primary is Tuesday.
[Is Stutzman Still the Club for Growth's Guy?] As of the end of the first quarter, the club's PAC had bundled about $200,000 for Stutzman, who said Hoosier voters know and respect the club since president David McIntosh and former president Chris Chocola are former Indiana congressmen.
But Rep. Todd Young continues to outpace him in fundraising, and recent revelations that Stutzman used campaign funds for family vacations likely won't bolster the farmer image he's tried to cultivate.
Stutzman hasn't endorsed in the presidential race, although on Thursday he praised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's selection of Carly Fiorina as his running mate. (Fiorina endorsed Stutzman in April). But he's also accused Young — falsely — of attending a stop-Trump confab in Florida.
Stopping Trump from getting to 1,237 delegates is perhaps the club's biggest mission in Indiana — "It's pivotal," said Sachtleben. But it's not just about delegates.
"We’ve had two weeks in a row of Trump victories, so Indiana is important in turning that around in the minds of voters and donors," he said. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.