Club Plays Offense and Defense

Posted January 12, 2009 at 6:08pm

Is the Club for Growth ready to play nice with House Republicans?

Perhaps not, but President Pat Toomey appears to be looking forward to working with the National Republican Congressional Committee this cycle — that is, if he decides not to run statewide in Pennsylvania. This could be a welcome change for House Republicans, who lost at least three seats to Democrats in 2008 in districts where the club played prominently.

In an interview at the organization’s K Street offices last week, Toomey, a former three-term House Member, praised new NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) as a determined man and friend. Toomey conceded that the NRCC’s goals might at times clash with those of the club, which aims to elect fiscal conservatives to office at almost any price.

“It’s understandable to me that if you are the chairman of the NRCC, that is not your primary consideration,” Toomey said. “Your job is to get as many guys with R’s after them as you can. And you are elected by the Conference and so every sitting Member of your Conference is a constituent, so it’s pretty hard not to at least nominally support those guys.”

Although the NRCC did not publicly play in any open-seat primaries in the 2008 cycle, the committee’s traditional policy is to support incumbent Members. The club, however, supported challenger Republicans candidates who defeated GOP incumbents in 2006 and 2008 primaries, but who lost to Democrats this past November.

“As far as butting heads [with the NRCC] goes, I very much doubt it,” Toomey said. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t work together cooperatively to the extent that the law permits it, in the areas where it is permitted, but also recognizing that we have different missions.”

One of Toomey’s former House staffers, Josh Saltzman, even heads up Sessions’ personal office on Capitol Hill.

NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said the committee welcomes the club’s commitment to conservative causes.

“Chairman Sessions understands that campaign politics is a team sport and he shares Pat Toomey’s commitment to the conservative cause,” Spain said. “Republican victories in 2010 are the means to furthering an agenda of lower taxes, smaller government and victory in the war on terror.”

Toomey said he was not familiar with the leadership style of Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the NRCC chairman in the 2008 cycle whose tenure at the helm of the committee ended in a 21-seat loss for Republicans.

First-term Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), whom the club backed in a contentious 2006 primary over a moderate Republican incumbent, lost in 2008 to now-Rep. Mark Schauer (D) in what should be a reasonably safe Republican district. Fellow one-term former Rep. Bill Sali (R), another club-backed candidate, lost in November to now-Rep. Walt Minnick (D) in another traditionally GOP House seat in Idaho.

The club also heavily backed Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who lost by 304 votes to longtime Rep. Don Young in the August GOP primary.

“Knowing what I know now about certain races, yeah, I’d do a few things a little bit differently, little tactical things,” Toomey said. “You look back, and who knew that the Alaska race would go down to … 300 votes, literally? Knowing that, would we have tried to find a way to put a couple hundred thousand dollars into that race? Sure. But at the time, you’re dealing with scarce resources and you’ve got many competitive demands for those resources.”

The club had more resources in 2008 than ever before: a collective $10 million pumped into both primary and general election contests, consisting of $3 million from the club’s political action committee and $7 million in bundled contributions from its members.

Looking back at the 2008 cycle, Toomey recalled “a lot of good pickup opportunities” that were spoiled in a bad environment for Republicans.

Nowhere in 2008 was the club more heavily criticized than in Maryland’s 1st district.

The club’s preferred Republican primary candidate, state Sen. Andy Harris, defeated moderate Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, only to lose to a Democrat in the general election.

During the primary contest, the club’s PAC ran $520,000 in ads attacking Gilchrest and supporting Harris. It also helped bundle some $433,000 in contributions for Harris while its 501(c)(4) dropped $157,000 in primary ads.

In the end, Harris beat Gilchrest by 10 points to claim the Republican nomination.

“That was a very big win,” Toomey said. “The club provided huge resources for Andy Harris [and] made that happen. … Historically, you know how rare and difficult it is to beat an incumbent … but it’s certainly even more difficult to beat an incumbent in the primary.”

But victory was short-lived for Harris, who lost to now-Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) in the general election after Democrats targeted the race — and Gilchrest and many of his supporters snubbed Harris to work for Kratovil. The race was so close it took a week’s worth of counting before Harris finally conceded.

But Toomey blamed the outcome on the national political dynamic, not on any lingering bitterness from the GOP primary.

“Any other cycle, Andy Harris would have won that race. This was just a very unfortunate cycle,” Toomey said. During the general election, “we were in the same situation as everybody who wound up on the center-right found themselves: a bad situation that just kept getting worse.”

Harris has left the door open to run again in 2010, but he could be in good company: Toomey said he is considering challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) or running for governor of Pennsylvania in 2010.

“I haven’t ruled out a statewide run in 2010,” Toomey said.

At the end of his third Congressional term, Toomey lost by a couple of points to Specter in the 2004 GOP primary. A resident of Zionsville, Pa., Toomey said he has not spoken with Specter since before the general election in 2004.

But it’s more likely that Toomey would make a gubernatorial bid, said a Pennsylvania Republican operative close to him. The operative cautioned, however, that he would not swear off a Specter challenge if the trademark moderate Republican Senator verges too far to the left on certain issues — for example, the “card check” vote that would make it easier for workers to unionize.

Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy and Allyson Schwartz are said to be considering running against Specter, as is state House Deputy Speaker Josh Shapiro (D).

John McArdle contributed to this report.