The hour was growing late and David McIntosh’s son was frustrated. It was election night, and the dozens of people gathered at the Club for Growth’s downtown Washington office were — to their own surprise — realizing that Donald Trump would win.
The teenager was puzzled why the TV networks were taking so long to declare Trump the victor.
“And I said, ‘Well, they’re double-checking because it’s so unexpected,’” McIntosh, the club’s president, would recount months later.
Trump’s victory stunned just about everybody, and maybe the Club for Growth most of all.
Now, the free-market advocacy group finds itself in what might be the strangest position in Washington.
For more than a decade, the club had been the Republican Party’s foremost enforcer of fiscal conservatism, finding and funding primary challengers against party members who didn’t stick to its rigid anti-tax script. It clashed repeatedly with the GOP establishment over tactics and ideology.
It had been successful, too — until Trump arrived. The economic populist won the Republican nomination even as the organization spent millions of dollars on TV ads attacking him over his fiscal agenda. The spat between the two sides turned nasty, with the billionaire claiming that club officials had once begged him to become a donor.
But his victory in November (which McIntosh freely admits he didn’t expect) means that, despite what happened in the past, the GOP now has an unrivaled opportunity to enact tax and regulatory overhauls, and repeal the 2010 health care law — all top priorities for the club.
Friend or foe?
And that would be great, except the group’s leaders still also worry that the president will turn out to be more foe than ally. Or worse yet, they worry he’s already changed the Republican Party in a way that will permanently damage its belief in fiscal conservatism.
“Everybody’s just in this surreal honeymoon phase right now,” said Andy Roth, the club’s vice president of government affairs. “Everybody is excited, but kind of wary of what may come down the pike next.”
For the time being, the club’s leaders are optimistic about Trump. His support of a tax overhaul and repeal of the health care law has been encouraging, they say, as has his opposition to new regulation. On Monday, the Trump administration announced a new executive order mandating that for every new federal regulation, two existing rules must be repealed.
McIntosh praised Trump’s insistence that the health care law be repealed and replaced immediately, instead of backing the two-year delay some GOP officials were suggesting. He also questioned the intent of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, and whether it was just a bargaining position. (Roth said that if Trump renegotiates NAFTA, he’s still hopeful that the new agreement will actually be more free-trade friendly.)
And though McIntosh said he did not like the way Trump has publicly pressured companies to invest in America, he also faulted the companies themselves for not pushing back.
“They run and cower at the mention of their names rather than full-throatedly use their First Amendment right and say, ‘No, we’re doing this because we have an obligation to our shareholders to make good decisions about how we spend our money,’” the group’s president said. “I think they should fight back.”
To some Republicans, especially members of the party establishment, it might sound strange to hear the club be so encouraging. This is a group, after all, that still celebrates the retirement of former Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner and the electoral defeat of former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, both of whom were criticized for their lack of fight while in office (and something McIntosh and Roth both mentioned again during the interview).
Many Capitol Hill Republicans saw the club as unrealistically rigid in its assessment, too often letting good be the enemy of perfect.
A little compromise
But McIntosh said that despite differences with Trump, he and his organization are dedicated to focusing on areas of agreement.
“I’m sort of the 70-percent rule right now, which is, ‘Don’t let the fight of perfection get in the way of getting 70 percent done that we all agree with,’” McIntosh said. “I think our members want that. I think Republican voters want that.”
The more conciliatory approach isn’t that abrupt a change. During the last election, it avoided backing primary challengers against sitting Republican senators, preferring instead to support GOP incumbents who had previously received club support and were running for re-election.
But the new focus is likely to raise the hackles of critics who charge that the club lost its nerve in the face of a new combative new president who’s already defeated it once.
Club leaders flatly reject the criticism.
“I don’t think we’ve changed so much as the landscape has changed,” Roth said. “You know, it’s not necessarily Trump. It’s that we’re now in a new conservative era where we might get a lot of what we fought so long for. And that means, possibly, less friction with our enemies.”
“I think the club is every bit as true to its mission as it always has been,” he added.
One area of sharp disagreement between the group and Trump is the president’s support for vastly increased spending on infrastructure. Some have suggested as much as $1 trillion might be spent on roads, bridges, and other projects.
Club officials are confident the proposal doesn’t have support — at least, for now.
“I’m not seeing a lot of support for the infrastructure bill,” Roth said. “If anything, I’ve been on the Hill, and I’ve been amazed at the pushback.”
But Roth conceded that pressure from Trump could be hard to resist.
“One tweet and he can change minds,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Part of the worry for fiscal conservatives is that even if Republican members personally object to the new spending, Trump’s hold on the party could force them into supporting it out of political survival.
And in this way, the Republican president could reshape the entire party in his own image — leaving behind the priorities of groups like the Club for Growth.
In one respect, club leaders are still confident: elections. The organization has always made aggressive forays into Republican congressional primaries, especially in open-seat races where it routinely backs candidates against those supported by the establishment.
But Roth and McIntosh say that in the fleet of early open-seat House races (many of which were created by Trump selecting members like Mike Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney to join his Cabinet), they’re not seeing any influx of Trump-like candidates.
And because Trump and the club are in agreement on so many issues, they doubt they’d clash in many of these primaries anyway.
“It seems to me that if we’re ever drawn into the same race, it’s going to be on the same side,” Roth said.