Club For Growth Chalks Up More Wins
May seems to be the Club For Growth's month.
The Washington, D.C.-based political organization, which is dedicated to supporting laissez faire capitalism, has scored a slew of GOP primary victories so far this month. It began in Ohio on May 2 where the group backed state Sen. Jim Jordan in the open 4th District House race and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in the governor's race.
A week later, state Sen. Adrian Smith -- the Club-endorsed candidate -- won a crowded Republican primary in the western Nebraska 3rd District. On May 16, Club for Growth President Pat Toomey and the club's Pennsylvania chapter helped organize conservatives to vote against GOP state legislators who had approved a pay raise for themselves. Seventeen legislators members wound up losing their primary races, 13 of whom were Republicans.
Then, last night, another Club-backed candidate, state Rep. Bill Sali, won a six-way GOP primary to claim the nomination in Idaho's 1st District.
"The month of May is validating the new model we have developed," said Toomey. "[We] go in early and go in massively when we make an endorsement."
Take Sali's victory last night as the Club's blueprint for victory. The Club endorsed his candidacy last August and immediately began using its national financial network to bundle contributions to Sali. By May 3, Sali had raised $386,000 -- $353,000 of which came from Club donors.
In addition to funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sali, the Club also ran two television ads and a radio commercial on his behalf, which cost roughly $149,000 total. The first touted his credentials as a tax cutter and a second ad that took Sali's two main opponents -- former state Sen. Sheila Sorensen and Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez -- to task for their support for higher taxes.
The second ad was a fascinating bit of political gamesmanship by the Club. Faced with survey data that showed showed Sali running behind both Sorensen and Vasquez, the Club went with an unorthodox strategy in the final days of the campaign. Since conservative voters were dividing their support between Sali and Vasquez, the Club's final ad, which was produced by media consultant Jon Lerner of Red Sea LLC, sought to link Vasquez to Sorensen, who was widely seen as the most liberal of the three top candidates. By doing so, the Club created more undecideds in Sali's wheelhouse -- the most conservative primary voters. The result? Sali took 26 percent to 18 percent for Sorenson and Vasquez.
In Nebraska, the Club bundled $323,000 for Smith (he raised $437,000 total) and spent $70,000 on television commercials to boost his candidacy. Jordan received $95,000 in donations from Club members and the group spent $100,000 on an ad campaign on his behalf. The Club was less active for Blackwell but did funnel $175,000 in member contributions to his campaign.
Toomey said the success of Club-backed candidates should send a message to the Republican Party in Washington. "The Republican electorate is a conservative electorate," said Toomey. "They expect and want and now they are demanding Republicans who govern on the principles they have always believed in."
Toomey added that the party is still not getting the message, however, pointing out that an attempt yesterday by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to cut out a series of earmarks received less than 100 votes. "Talk about a tin ear," said Toomey. "I think these guys are blowing it badly."
The Club's victories also validate a change in leadership that followed a successful 2004 cycle. Stephen Moore, who had helped build the group, left and was replaced by Toomey, who had left Congress after three terms and a near-miss primary upset over Sen. Arlen Specter (R) in 2004. (I wrote an article about the breakup at the Club for Washington Monthly last year.) Moore went on to found the Free Enterprise Fund, which was seen as a rival to the Club. He left that group soon after to join the Wall Street Journal editorial board.
While the Club has shown a remarkable ability to use its fundraising prowess and strategic know-how to help its candidates claim victory in open-seat contests, it has yet to oust a Republican incumbent, which is seen as the holy grail by many Club backers.
Many believe the Rhode Island Senate primary between Sen. Lincoln Chafee and Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, whom the Club has endorsed, is the best chance the organization has ever had to topple an incumbent. The two men will face off in a Sept. 12 primary. Thanks to the Club and his own personal wealth, Laffey has kept pace with Chafee on the fundraising front although the incumbent ended March with $700,000 more in the bank.
The Club is also heavily backing former state Rep. Tim Walberg, who is challenging freshman Rep. Joe Schwartz in Michigan's 7th District. In 2004, Schwartz, a moderate Republican, won a crowded primary as several conservative candidates divvied up the vote. This time, Walberg is the lone challenger and -- in theory-- will consolidate conservatives behind him. At the end of March, Schwartz had $334,000 in the bank to Walberg's $304,000. The primary is Aug. 8.
Given the Club's track record in contested elections this year, a win in Rhode Island or Michigan would both heighten the organization's national profile and worry Republican incumbents who tend to stray from their party's orthodoxy on fiscal matters.
May 24, 2006; 3:07 PM ET
Categories: House , Republican Party , Senate
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