Insurgent Republicans

The Club for Growth wants to create a free market GOP, whether the party likes it or not.

This is not where Pat Toomey wanted to be tonight. The 43-year-old Pennsylvanian took over the Club for Growth in September 2006, after he lost a nail-biting primary to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and vacated his own seat in Congress. Against the objections of powerful Republicans, Toomey helped nudge Stephen Laffey, the conservative mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, into a primary fight against Lincoln Chafee, the state’s liberal Republican senator. Throughout the summer, polls showed Laffey positioned to do what Toomey couldn’t: oust a pro-choice, pro-tax RINO (“Republican in Name Only”) and send the GOP establishment reeling.

But the plan isn’t coming together. As Toomey quietly eats a late dinner in a D.C. hotel, Andrew Roth, the Club for Growth’s government affairs director, feverishly refreshes the website collecting vote results. The first numbers come in, and Laffey is down 56 percent to 44 percent.

“Do we know where those numbers are from?” asks the club’s executive director, David Keating. “Are they from his precincts?”

“It looks bad everywhere,” Toomey says, putting down a cell phone and returning to his plate. Laffey ends up losing, 54 to 46.

Hopes had been high for the Rhode Island primary. After watching a once-obscure millionaire named Ned Lamont upset Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman in neighboring Connecticut, political junkies were talking up the Laffey-Chafee race as a gladiator match of Republican philosophies and a test of the Club for Growth’s power. To its opponents’ delight, the club failed the test. The Providence Journal editorialized against the group’s “pretty nasty” anti-Chafee ads. The Economist’s Lexington columnist welcomed the club’s setback, because “the Chafees of this world are good for the health of the Republican Party.”

That’s certainly the conventional wisdom. The last year has seen a surge in hand-wringing commentary about Washington’s partisan trench warfare. Books with titles like Off Center and Fight Club Politics have bemoaned the decline of swing districts and “moderate” candidates. Columnists such as The Washington Post’s legendary David Broder have singled out politicians like Chafee and Lieberman for praise, for bucking their parties’ trends and for battling liberal bloggers, the Club for Growth, and other ideological insurgents.

In fact, the club was founded with the goal of battling partisanship—not to help the parties get along better but to turn their attention from scandals to policy. The group was launched in Washington after the 1998 midterm elections, when the GOP hitched its wagon to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and promptly lost seats.

“There was a lot of frustration after that election because Republicans hadn’t performed well,” remembers Stephen Moore, the former aide to Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and former Cato Institute scholar who co-founded the club with Arthur Laffer, Larry Kudlow, and other market-oriented economists. “The party had spent $35 million in tight races, but not effectively.”

The club had a simple dogma: to elect Republicans who would shrink government, cut taxes, reform the legal system, and liberalize trade. It distinguished itself from other conservative groups by its methods: The club didn’t care if, in the process of putting a pro-growth majority on the Hill, it kicked a few incumbent Republicans to the curb.

“A lot of people who donated to the Club for Growth were Cato Institute and Reason Foundation donors,” Moore says. “People who were libertarians or conservatives first and Republicans second.”

What that meant for Republicans was that, while they were marshaling their strength for Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s presidential race, the club came to the aid of Scott Garrett, a conservative New Jersey assemblyman running against liberal Republican Rep. Marge Roukema. The club bundled more than $100,000 from donors to Garrett; on Election Day he fell only a few thousand ballots short of beating Roukema and the entire squishy New Jersey Republican establishment.

Supporting Garrett got the club some
bad press and some ugly vibes from the GOP. But at the same time Moore and company were distributing $4 million to congressional candidates such as Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Indiana’s Mike Pence. When they came to Washington alongside the new president, they quickly became the staunchest supporters of his tax cuts—and staunchest opponents of his education reform plans.

The Club for Growth grew wildly in the next two election cycles, raising more than $10 million in 2002 and around $22 million in 2004. (It doesn’t expect to break the 2004 record this year, thanks to the decreased cash flow that comes after a presidential cycle.) The legislators the club supported have come through on fiscal issues. “If you look at the roll calls,” says David Keating, “our candidates are the ones voting against the Medicare bill, voting for budget cuts.”

Yet as it voices libertarian dissent from the GOP’s economic policies, the club is also endorsing candidates who don’t have a socially libertarian bone in their bodies. It played a key role in electing Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolinian who thinks gays shouldn’t be allowed to teach in public schools, and Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoman who’s mulled the death penalty for abortionists. In its biggest triumph of 2006, the club replaced Michigan Republican Joe Schwarz, a pro-choice liberal, with a vigorously pro-life pastor named Tim Walberg.

The socially conservative strain of its
candidates doesn’t concern the club. “We don’t rate on social issues,” says Keating. “They play no role whatsoever in the process.”

“In the 2004 cycle, we endorsed [Arizona Republican] Jim Kolbe,” Pat Toomey adds. “He’s openly gay, he’s pro-choice, but he has a great record supporting Social Security reform and free trade. But the nature of American politics today is that you put certain coalitions together.…I’ve got some theories on this, but suffice it to say people who are very pro-choice, with exceptions, just don’t tend to have a commitment to
less government and economic freedom.”

One week after the Rhode Island primary, David Keating comes to Capitol Hill to distribute weighty glass trophies to senators and representatives who scored above 90 percent on the club’s vote-ranking scale. Bitterness about the Chafee and Specter challenges is completely absent. Instead, Keating gets grateful handshakes, loud kudos for the club’s support, and a few pleas.

Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina
gives a detailed pitch for a challenger named Ralph Norman: “He’s raised a million dollars. He’s the first challenger to go on the air in Charlotte this far out of the election.” When Wilson leaves, Jim DeMint marches in and collects his trophy. As he ambles toward the door, he turns back to Keating: “Oh, and I want to talk to you about Ralph Norman.”

One congressman’s communications director asks if the club is going to endorse Randy Graf, an anti-immigration activist who won the Republican nod in Arizona’s 8th District. Keating grimaces; Graf was the guy who ran against Jim Kolbe two years ago. “No,” Keating explains. “Graf is terrible on trade.”

That’s what the club keeps trying to impress upon people. It doesn’t want simply to elect the maximum number of Republicans; leave that to Karl Rove. It doesn’t just want to elect “outsider” candidates or beat incumbents, although if those are the tactics that can mold the GOP in their liking, they’ll use them.

What the Club for Growth wants to create is a Republican Party that’s absolutely dedicated to tax cuts and free-market reforms, and at least willing to be heterodox on civil liberties and social issues. For libertarians who have watched the Bush-era GOP disgrace itself on spending, entitlement reform, federalism, and much more, it’s a battle plan that looks more attractive every year.

David Weigel is assistant editor of Reason.

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