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Club for Growth Garners More Respect

Correction Appended

Saturday’s special election in Louisiana didn’t result in much good news for the National Republican Congressional Committee, but in the lead-up to that contest, Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) did mention what he thought was one positive sign for the GOP.

Cole said in a press briefing last week that he was “glad to see” the powerful anti-tax group Club for Growth getting involved in general elections this cycle.

Cole’s offhand remark was noteworthy because it alluded to what has at times been a somewhat adversarial relationship between the NRCC and the Club for Growth, which has forced the GOP establishment occasionally to spend money on candidates it might not otherwise support.

But now that Republicans have lost their second competitive special election in a row, and with some fearing that the worst is yet to come in November, Cole’s statement could be interpreted as a call for unity during a dark hour for the GOP.

For their part, Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said on Tuesday that nothing has changed. The organization, she said, “isn’t doing anything all that different from last cycle. … If Tom Cole is insinuating that we’re doing something new and different, then he hasn’t really been paying attention all that much.”

She said the main focus of the club — which promotes an anti-tax, pro-economic growth agenda — has always been and will always be primaries.

That’s because the club tends to get involved in races in conservative districts where it’s almost always the Republican who comes out on top.

“So the question is not, ‘Do we want a Republican or a Democrat?’ but rather, ‘What kind of Republican do we want?” she said. “Do we want someone who votes for the Republican leadership and then just votes for pork … or do we want someone who is really committed to economic conservative values?”

But the group already has made several endorsements in races in which the club-backed candidate has either no or only nominal primary challenges. In those races, Soloveichik said, the club will be active in the general election.

They include the House races of Rep. Tim Walberg (R) in Michigan and Dean Andal (R) in California, and the Senate campaigns of former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) in Colorado and Sen. John Sununu (R) in New Hampshire.

Over the years, GOP critics of the Club for Growth have complained that the group has occasionally given weak candidates the money and resources to get through tough primary races — only to orphan them when the general election comes around.

And since those candidates learn to rely on the fundraising power of the club in the primary, by the time the candidate gets to the general election, “you are left with a candidate who has no ability to raise money on their own,” one Republican strategist said Tuesday. “So groups like the NRCC have to step in and fund these candidates in a much bigger way than they should have to.”

The strategist pointed to Idaho’s 1st district race, where the support provided by the Club for Growth was a key reason why Rep. Bill Sali (R) made it through a crowded primary contest, only to have a competitive general election in which the NRCC had to step in.

“The NRCC had to spend money in Idaho, which they never should have had to have done,” the strategist said.

This year, Sali ended the first quarter with a weak $124,000 in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports, and $145,000 in campaign debt. The club has not endorsed Sali this cycle.

Even more frustrating for critics of the club are the times when the group has forced the GOP establishment to spend resources defending incumbents in primaries instead of going after Democrats.

A prime example, they say, is the 2006 reelection campaign of former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

The Club for Growth backed former Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey and forced Chafee into a brutal primary. Chafee fought off the challenge but went on to lose his election in November to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and has since blamed the club for hobbling him in his general election race.

Coming off former state Rep. Woody Jenkins’ (R) loss to state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) in Louisiana’s special election Saturday, some Capitol Hill Republicans agreed with Cole this week that it was a positive sign to see the club spend more than $100,000 in the general election after getting behind Jenkins early in the primary.

But, they said, it remains to be seen if this was an isolated incident or if the club is going to make this a general practice.

In a year in which the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continues to dominate its Republican counterpart in fundraising, having a powerful third-party group like the club increase its activity during the run-up to the general elections would be a boon for the GOP.

Still, some Republicans said the club playing in the general election means little if the organization continues to back candidates that require help from the committee.

“You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis said on Tuesday.

In the case of Jenkins in Louisiana, Davis said, the club “ended up getting behind a candidate who couldn’t raise money, giving him energy, and then so what if they saw it through. It still cost the committee money.

“We shouldn’t have had to spend money to hold that seat,” Davis said. “We spent money and lost a seat with a bad candidate that they came in and nominated.”

Correction: May 7, 2008

The article incorrectly reported that the club has endorsed Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) for re-election. The club’s political action committee endorsed Sali in 2006, but the group has made no endorsement in his race this cycle.

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