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GOP Welcomes Chocola to Club

Group Will Still Target Incumbents

With the Club for Growth under new leadership, House Republicans appear to be more comfortable with the organization that has supported fiscally conservative candidates, often to the detriment of the GOP’s Congressional ranks.

Former Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) said he has not made any major changes since he took charge of the organization in April. But several House Republicans said Chocola has been more willing to cooperate with his former House colleagues than his predecessor was.

“We don’t wake up in the morning and say, How can we tick off the Republicans?’— Chocola said recently in his first sit-down interview since taking the post. “We wake up in the morning and say, How can we promote economic freedom through the education and legislative process?’ And sometimes that may ruffle some feathers.—

The new president of the anti-tax group told Roll Call that he didn’t plan to make any “drastic— or “substantive— changes to the way the club operates and said that he is still open to the idea of backing primary challengers against incumbent Republicans on a “case by case— basis.

Nonetheless, it appears House Republicans are much more comfortable with Chocola at the helm of the well-funded organization than they were with his predecessor, former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is likely Chocola’s closest friend on Capitol Hill, recalled that the Indiana Republican was one of Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) “closest guys— when he was in House.

“I think he’s talented, I think he’s well connected, I think he’s very well thought of here,— Cole said. “I think Members feel a lot more comfortable with him at the head of that organization.—

Chocola made a major outreach to Members at a meeting of the Conservative Opportunity Society at the Capitol Hill Club last week. According to one Member present at the meeting, Chocola answered pointed questions from 15 to 20 House Republicans. The Member said that while Chocola did not commit to staying out of primaries with incumbent Republicans, he left with the impression that the club’s focus would be on other races this cycle.

Another Member in attendance, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), called the meeting “very genial— and said he also left with the impression that the club might be run differently under Chocola.

“I complained about some of the decisions they had made, such as basically ousting Congressman Joe Schwarz from Michigan and also some other races like that,— Ehlers said. “I thought it was an inappropriate thing if they were trying to be helpful to us. They should try to help strengthen us and not cause us to lose seats, as we have as a result of that.—

The club’s involvement in GOP primaries was a major contributing factor in the party’s loss of three seats in 2008: Idaho’s 1st district, Michigan’s 7th district and Maryland’s 1st district.

Sitting in the club’s sparsely decorated downtown office, a very mellow Chocola defended the group’s role in those races, saying that those three seats pale in comparison to the total of 55 seats that House Republicans have lost over the past two cycles.

“More than 50 other seats we lost,— Chocola said. “There’s a bigger problem out there than anything the Club for Growth represents.—

The club is already gearing up to play in the 2010 cycle. It has polled in the open Florida Senate race, where the club is considering endorsing former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R) over Gov. Charlie Crist (R). It has already endorsed a Republican candidate for an open-seat race in Oklahoma and is backing Toomey’s Senate bid in Pennsylvania. Chocola also said the group is closely watching the Nevada Senate race, where Republicans are searching for a candidate to run against Majority Leader Harry Reid (D).

Perhaps more important are the races where the club may be looking to cause heartburn for vulnerable Republicans. In a recent letter to club members, Chocola called out the eight Republicans who voted for the recent cap-and-trade bill and asked for suggestions of candidates to run against them.

Some of the Members on the list are mulling bids for higher office or are likely stepping down, such as Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), but others, such as Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), are consistently targeted by Democrats each election cycle.

Chocola maintained that attacking Republican incumbents was only a small part of what the club does. He said it looks for open Republican seats because if the district will vote Republican anyway, it might as well be for one of their free-market candidates.

“We get attention when we play in a Republican race because people love the intramural scrimmage,— Chocola said. “Going after a Democrat doesn’t seem nearly as newsworthy as us going after a Republican because people think that’s just more interesting. But that’s maybe a quarter of what we do.—

Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.) is incumbent retention chairman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He said he doesn’t think the club’s philosophy will change, but he does expect the club’s focus to shift to helping its candidates win the general election — a departure from previous cycles when it wanted “to get Republicans of a certain ilk— and it wasn’t “always that helpful.—

“I think if they found — and I’m not supporting this — but if they found a Republican in a primary where it would make a difference between a free-market Republican and not, they’re going to engage,— Rogers said. “But that’s not going to be their focus going into this year.—

Some GOP Members also mentioned that Chocola might have a better understanding because he represented a competitive swing district in northern Indiana. Chocola, whom the club supported while he was in Congress, lost re-election in 2006.

Not only was Cole one of Chocola’s closest friends in Washington, D.C., but when he was chairman of the NRCC last cycle he also saw the kind of power that the club can wield in Republican primaries.

“I’ve seen them waste a lot of money in races,— Cole said. “Sometimes spending money where there was no need, there was all conservatives already fighting, other occasions literally helping candidates win who then couldn’t perform in the general election. It’s not because of their ideology, it’s because they were pretty poor candidates.—

Cole recalled telling Chocola recently that it was imperative the club not hand over an unprepared or unprofessional candidate to the NRCC after seeing him through the primary, especially given the NRCC’s limited resources this cycle.

“All of a sudden, they show up on your doorstep, if you’re NRCC chairman, as welfare babies,— Cole said. “They need a check and they need somebody to do the work. I need real candidates.—