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Just one week into newly elected House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (Texas) tenure in the GOP’s No. 2 leadership post, moderate Republicans are seething about a contribution he made late in the campaign to a conservative, anti-tax group best known for trying to unseat Republican centrists in primaries.

In the final weeks before the Nov. 5, 2002, election, the nonfederal arm of DeLay’s leadership political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, gave $50,000 to the Club for Growth for an issue-ad campaign targeted at vulnerable Democrats, according to a report by and federal election records.

The money came at a time when lawmakers were dumping funds from the nonfederal arms of their leadership PACs in preparation for the new campaign finance law, which went into effect Nov. 6. The new law bars lawmakers from any affiliation with soft-money PACs.

When informed of DeLay’s contribution to the Club for Growth, Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) was flabbergasted.

“I can’t believe Tom DeLay did this,” Houghton said incredulously. “What was he thinking? Someone who is the Majority Leader cannot go around supporting groups that try to destroy other Republicans.”

Several other moderates privately fumed about the donation but declined to comment.

“It’s just outrageous,” said one lawmaker who requested anonymity remarked.

When contacted, a spokesman for the Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate GOP lawmakers that clashed directly and repeatedly with the Club for Growth during last year’s Republican primaries, would say only that the group was looking into the matter.

Ever since DeLay announced his intention to move up the GOP leadership ladder to the No. 2 post more than a year ago, moderates predicted that giving the hard-charging conservative even more power would only further diminish their own.

In the months leading up to his election, DeLay repeatedly tried to calm centrists’ fears by pledging to represent the entire Conference if elected Majority Leader.

DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy argued that his boss had done nothing to offend his moderate colleagues because he gave to the group during the last weeks of the general election for an ad campaign devoted to defeating Democrats — not during the primary season, when the group was taking aim at moderate Republicans.

“The sole purpose of DeLay’s leadership PAC is to help expand the majority in the House,” Roy said. “ARMPAC gave that money to the Club for Growth with two weeks to go in the cycle. We were well in the general election part of the campaign. They had commercials up and running and the additional money from ARMPAC helped to keep the commercials on the air longer.”

Later, Roy added: “With two weeks to go in the election cycle, we’d give money to [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] if we believed it would help elect Republicans.”

DeLay, a prolific fundraiser, handed out record amounts of cash this cycle; he gave roughly $1.4 million to Republican candidates through his federal leadership PAC and re-election committee alone. He also headed up a grassroots mobilization effort widely credited with making the difference for Republicans in several narrow election contests.

Still, instead of the Club for Growth, Houghton said DeLay could have given to dozens of other groups working to defeat Democrats that were in desperate need of a late-term infusion of cash, such as the Main Street Partnership, which was trying to prop up then-Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) to no avail.

Others privately pointed out that if the Club for Growth had some portion of the $50,000 left at the end of the cycle, that money could be used to go after moderates during the primaries next cycle.

David Keating, the executive director of the Club for Growth, said last week during a forum devoted to the impact of the new campaign finance law that his group has ambitious plans.

He claimed the Club for Growth, which raised more than $9 million during the last campaign cycle, would commit more resources to primaries in the next cycle.

“Influence in a primary is far easier to exert than influence in a general election,” Keating said as he explained the group’s strategy.

He added that the Club for Growth would not give up its issue-advocacy activities because of new limits in the McCain-Feingold law on broadcast ads mentioning the names of candidates within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

To the contrary, Keating said that people can expect groups like the Club for Growth to run ads right up to the 30-day and 60-day windows.

He also claimed his group will rely more on bundling operations in the coming months, and, for that reason, he is eager to increase the Club for Growth’s membership, which has quintupled since 2000 under his direction.

Campaign experts predict a rise in bundling operations now that soft money is taboo. Keating said it is not unusual for his organization to dump $100,000 into a candidate’s race within a matter of days through such means.

In addition, Club for Growth President Steve Moore boasted late last week that he could raise $1 million for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to challenge popular maverick Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Moore also suggested that he is looking to unseat Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) next cycle.

Boehlert openly derides the group’s tactics and argues that it is motivated by more than just a tax-cutting, pro-business agenda.

“They are not exactly purists to their mission statement,” he said. “They say they are pro-free trade and pro-business, but I’ve voted for every tax cut and every trade deal that’s come through here.”

Boehlert added that he has received the National Federation of Independent Business’ Guardian of Small Business Award as well as plaudits from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But he was careful not to take issue with DeLay, who he said has supported him on numerous occasions. “While philosophically we may have our differences, one of the reasons he’s the Majority Leader is that he recognizes that if everyone voted that way he would like them to, he would have to write off the whole Northeast [to Democrats],” he said. “I don’t have a problem with DeLay.”

Amy Keller contributed to this report.

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