Wielding the Club; Conservative Group Holds Sway in Votes beyond Its Small Size

Article excerpt

Byline: Donald Lambro, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Chris Chocola is giving fair warning.

The president of the Club for Growth and former Indiana congressman wants lawmakers, especially Republicans, to think very carefully about his conservative organization before they cast their votes on economic issues, because he could be coming after them in the 2010 midterm elections if they vote the wrong way.

We think that votes have to have consequences, and the Club for Growth's enormous fundraising capacity to finance insurgent conservative candidates in Republican Party primaries can be the consequences, Mr. Chocola said.

We want [candidates] to think about us in way that encourages them to vote for a pro-growth agenda. If they aren't supporting a pro-growth agenda, then we start to pay a lot of attention to them. We study their voting record very closely, he added.

With a small staff and a single office on L Street in Northwest Washington, the organization has had an outsized impact on key elections since its founding a decade ago.

While hundreds of interest groups and political action committees pick favored candidates and raise campaign cash every year, a Club for Growth endorsement can generate instant headlines in the political press, and the group's strategy puts it at the center of a sharp internal debate on the right over the best way to reclaim influence and political power.

Already in this election cycle, its picks have had a profound influence on races for a Pennsylvania Senate seat, an open House seat in upstate New York and a hotly contested Republican primary for the Senate seat opening up in Florida.

They are a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for taxpayers, and it has enormous credibility in the business and fiscal conservative community, said Alex Burgos, chief spokesman for the campaign of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.

The Club for Growth's endorsement of Mr. Rubio in the Republican Senate primary over establishment candidate and sitting Gov. Charlie Crist has helped propel the intraparty fight into one of the most closely watched early contests of the 2010 midterm election cycle.

Some say the group's influence is based on its record of success, even in difficult political times for Republicans.

The Club for Growth was there in the foxhole fighting the fight over the last few cycles, and now I think they will be even more influential because these fiscal responsibility and economic issues are going to be front and center in the fight in this election cycle, said David Carney, a veteran Republican campaign consultant who has been advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry, among other candidates.

But the Club for Growth's prominence has also made it a target.

Former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee and has been one of the Club for Growth's sharpest critics, said, Their goal is to purify the Republicans in the House by going after moderates and liberals, but the result has weakened the party overall.

In a number of cases, they have lost a bunch of seats by nominating Republicans in the primaries who can't win general elections. I don't know how that helps the Republican agenda, said Mr. Davis, who now heads the moderate-leaning Republican Main Street Partnership.

The go-to guy

Mr. Chocola, who served two terms in Congress before taking over the helm of the Club for Growth this year, has become the go-to guy for endorsements and money for a growing clientele of fiscally conservative Republican candidates for Congress. They are drawn by the Club for Growth's ability to raise millions of dollars in campaign cash that the organization has selectively deployed to challenge and sometimes defeat liberal-to-moderate Republicans, with mixed results.

The Club for Growth's PAC and individual members pumped roughly $24 million in the 2008 election cycle, by bundling campaign contributions for its favored candidates while also running independently financed issue-advocacy ads. …