The Club for Growth’s next phase

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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At the 11th hour last night, conservative Texas Rep. Steve Stockman filed papers to challenge incumbent Sen. John Cornyn. The immediate response from the chattering classes was as follows: There’s not enough time for Stockman to raise the requisite funds to win in such a large state, and even if there were, Stockman (whose campaign is in debt) probably isn’t capable of marshaling the kind of organization needed.

Despite these challenges, the rise of outside groups and a changing political environment has chastened many a pundit. Writing somebody off prematurely can prove embarrassing. After all, a tweet from Sarah Palin, a mention on Mark Levin’s radio show, an endorsement of conservative outside groups and — bada bing! — you’ve got yourself an avalanche of of national support.

Catching the tea party zeitgeist at just the right moment has, in recent years, allowed some Davids to defeat a few Goliaths. But for this to happen, you usually need a perfect storm. You need to catch an incumbent who was asleep at the wheel, to enjoy the near unanimous support of movement conservatives, and to have enough time for this manna from heaven to appear.

And, in this regard, Stockman is now 0-for-3.

“While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Senator Cornyn, as witnessed by his 87% lifetime Club for Growth score,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola in a prepared statement. “Our PAC evaluates three factors when looking at races that involve incumbents: 1) the strength of the incumbent’s record; 2) the degree of difference between the incumbent and the challenger on economic issues; and 3) the viability of the challenger. None of those factors weigh against Senator Cornyn, so we do not expect to be involved in the Texas Senate race.”

Despite the rise of alternative conservative outside groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, The Club remains the most important on the right. (Note: I’ve long been an admirer of their work, and have moderated some panel discussions for them in the past). Initially, they earned this distinction by being willing to challenge moderate incumbents. For this, they were hated by the establishment, who complained that they were merely helping elect Democrats (sound familiar?).

But if being daring and courageous made them relevant and indispensable, they have maintained this stature by being built to last. An example: Whereas some outside groups’ decisions are made unilaterally by one or two political operatives, The Club is headed by a former member of Congress (the aforementioned Chocola) and is guided by a distinguished board of directors and seasoned staffers. Candidates are rigorously vetted by the aforementioned criteria (conversely, one gets the sense that some of these competing outside groups are often anxious to back somebody — anybody! — other than the incumbent).

In the beginning, The Club was the only group out there putting real money behind conservative primary challengers. They seemed to sense where things were heading before anyone else. But the pendulum has probably swung too far, and one gets the sense the inmates are running the asylum. Today, too many groups have a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. (Yes, conservative candidates ought to garner support when they run against RINOs, but someone serious ought to be determining if and when it is prudent to expend the appropriate resources to do so.)

Conservatives who were once in danger of too much passivity are probably in danger of throwing some babies out with the bath water. Changing times call for changing roles, and it occurs to me that The Club’s decision to stay out of the Texas Senate race this time around implies they may be exercising leadership by example. (And sometimes leadership is defined as much by what we don’t do as by what we do.)

Just because someone is old doesn’t make them a liberal, and just because someone is new and fresh doesn’t make them a conservative. And even when it can be demonstrated that a candidate is a solid conservative, that doesn’t make them wise or capable of winning. And even when they can win, electing conservatives who lack character, competence, or maturity might — in the long run — do more damage than good for the conservative cause. There are so many variables here. This is clearly a job that requires some adult supervision. Not stogy or establishment, but mature, conservative, leadership.

So my sense is The Club are now the adults in the room. If you’re a conservative who doesn’t trust the establishment or the party committees, but is also skeptical of some of these conservative outside groups, then this is where you look for guidance on whom to support (or not).

And, for what it’s worth, my guess is they just doomed whatever little chance Stockman had of catching fire.