Back in 2010, there were plenty of flabby, old Republicans in Congress who had lost their way. The most efficient way for conservatives to change the system was to defeat them in the primary. Today, thanks to those efforts, there’s an impressive, young crop of thoughtful conservatives already in office. The main challenge, now, is to make sure they are re-elected.
That’s the message I got recently when I spoke with David McIntosh, head of the Club for Growth. “We’re ready to move from the primary minor leagues up to the major leagues and help the Republicans get a robust majority that really is a conservative majority,” McIntosh said.
This pivot is logical for many reasons. First, just as it made sense in 2010 to focus on electing a young crop of conservatives, it now makes sense to focus on defending these young (now incumbent) Republicans—names like Pennsylvania Senator (and former Club for Growth head) Pat Toomey, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio,
and Louisiana Rep. John Fleming (running for the Senate seat vacated by David Vitter).
The shift is also the product of some stiff headwinds. This is McIntosh’s first cycle as president of the Club, and he inherits a group that is simultaneously one of the most effective and efficient on the Right—and also one that is increasingly facing a two-front war within the GOP, as the Republican Party itself seems to be reinventing itself as a more populist party.
The establishment wing fears the Club because, in the past, they have worked effectively to oust moderate incumbents; the populist Right (aka the Donald Trump wing) doesn’t cotton to their commitment to free markets and free trade.
It’s probably impossible to persuade the populist/protectionist wing to embrace the economics of Adam Smith (much less David Ricardo), but the establishment’s knock on the Club—the notion that they have have contributed to gridlock and the dumbing down of the GOP—doesn’t account for the fact that almost all of today’s rising crop of thoughtful and intellectual conservative statesmen owe their election (at least in large part) to the Club.
The list of rising stars who owe the Club a debt of gratitude includes respected center-right Senators Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake, Toomey, and Tom Cotton. “We find these really good champions of free-market limited government conservatism,” boasted McIntosh.
(Note: By way of full disclosure, the Club invited me to moderate a panel at their winter meeting in Florida last year—an invitation that included me signing copies of my jeremiad about the dumbing down of the GOP, Too Dumb to Fail, for attendees. This is not the kind of book a group committed to anti-intellectualism would distribute.)
Among some observers, there is also a sense that the Club is in decline—a perception that does not seem to comport with the record. The Club just went 4 for 5 in a set of primaries with wins this year of (1) Marco Rubio, (2) Ron DeSantis, (3) Paul Gosar, and (4) Andy Biggs (pending recount). This cycle, they also endorsed the candidate who won the primary for Speaker John Boehner’s old House seat. They actively opposed Trump-endorsed Rep. Renee Ellmers in North Carolina, spending more than $670,000; Ellmers, the only incumbent the Club has tried to oust this cycle, became the first incumbent to lose in 2016. What is more, McIntosh says they are on track this cycle to have the most money ever raised and spent by the Club. “It’s probably going to be north of $35 million,” he said.
Thus far this cycle, the Club has suffered four losses in eleven tries. But even here, McIntosh told me this record is a feature, not a bug. The Club’s board of directors doesn’t want to waste resources on either easy wins or lost causes. The message coming from the board, McIntosh told me, is that “We want you to get into close races and make the difference.”
Back to the pivot. This will be the first time the Club has focused on the General Election. “What we’re going to demonstrate,” McIntosh told me, “is that we’re also good in the General, and [we are] ready to take on the larger role.” McIntosh suggests that the Club’s mission and the establishment’s goals, while not identical, should not be seen as adversarial. “Part of my goal,” said McIntosh, “is to show them we can actually help with the overall goal of a Republican majority.”
“Our strategy…is to use what we’re good at on research and candidate identification to find candidates that they’ll be for, too; [Arkansas Senator] Tom Cotton was an example the last time around….by the end of it, Karl Rove was spending a lot of money and taking credit for getting him to the Senate. And I was happy with that,” he said.
A lot has changed since 2010. To everything there is a season.