Club Usually Has Worked to Defeat Moderates
The Club for Growth’s willingness to praise socially liberal former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) in the presidential race stands in stark contrast to the group’s record in the past few election cycles.
While the Club for Growth has become a financial powerhouse in Congressional elections by stressing free-market values and backing candidates who embrace its agenda of lower taxes, the group also has been a leading supporter of social conservatives, particularly in hard-fought Republican primaries.
From the beginning, club leaders maintained that the group backs candidates without any regard to their views on social issues.
But a look at the candidates the club has endorsed in recent cycles and the allies it enlists reveals the difficulty of divorcing one set of conservative principles from another.
“That’s a reality of America’s political landscape,” said Club for Growth President Pat Toomey. “Show me a candidate who happens to be fiscally conservative who is also socially liberal.”
The club has not backed a candidate who supported unrestricted abortion rights since 2000, and every time it has targeted a Republican incumbent — ostensibly over fiscal issues — the sitting Member happened to be a social moderate.
In the 2006 election cycle, all 11 House candidates that the club endorsed opposed abortion rights — including Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), the first Democrat ever endorsed by the Club for Growth. In contests with multiple Republican candidates, the club’s candidates frequently were the most ardent social conservatives.
Club leaders swear this is a coincidence — a byproduct of trying to put together a winning conservative coalition. Toomey said that economic conservatism and social conservatism often go hand in hand.
Still, some Republican moderates have criticized the club’s priorities and tactics.
Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, a frequent club critic who heads the Republican Main Street Partnership, which helps elect GOP moderates, believes the club purposely aids social conservatives.
“I have to question their agenda,” she said.
But the biggest complaint against the club, even among Republicans who do not think it is hiding a social agenda, is the zeal with which it challenges certain GOP incumbents. Last year, it helped now-Rep. Tim Walberg (Mich.) oust then-Rep. Joe Schwarz in a GOP primary, and some Republicans believe that its blistering attacks on then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) in the GOP primary contributed to his general election defeat.
Club leaders have been unapologetic about flexing their muscle in primaries against moderate incumbents, even if it imperils the GOP’s hold on a Congressional seat.
One conservative Republican consultant not affiliated with the club said that the dwindling number of GOP moderates in Congress is “an unintended consequence” of the organization’s overall strategy to promote conservative ideals.
The Club for Growth does have some defenders among moderate Republicans.
“They’ve always said economic issues is the most important factor,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a supporter of abortion rights. “They do not exclusively support social conservatives and their support of me [in a 2000 open-seat race] is proof of that.”
But that was the most recent cycle in which the club endorsed a candidate who fully supported abortion rights — it also backed then-Rep. Rick Lazio’s (R-N.Y.) Senate bid. And by their own admission, club leaders occasionally have been subject to pressure from social conservatives — like the time in 2003 when they shunted aside the state Senator who organized the group’s Arizona chapter, who was openly gay.
Stephen Moore, the club president at the time, defended the move.
“We’re not against gay rights and we’re not for it, we’re agnostic on it,” he said. “But we felt his leadership on gay rights issues was going to be a distraction from what he was supposed to be working on.”
Toomey, a former Pennsylvania Congressman who unsuccessfully challenged moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in 2004, insisted that the club does not have a social agenda.
“Look at everything that we put all our time and energy and money into — it’s economic issues,” Toomey said. “If the goal really were to advance social policies, there’d be a much more efficient way to do it.”