Rivalry between Mike Huckabee and Club for Growth heats up in primaries

The often heated conflict between former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth is coming to a boil this month, with the two on opposite sides in a number of Republican congressional primaries.

Three of the four races where they’re at loggerheads take place in May: A hard-fought Texas Senate primary on May 29; a House primary in Huckabee’s old Arkansas district featuring one of his former staffers on May 22; and Nebraska’s Senate primary this past Tuesday. Wisconsin’s Senate primary will take place in August.

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Back in 2008, Huckabee was the lead target of the Club for Growth, which ran ads calling him a “liberal” and slamming his fiscal record as governor. Huckabee hasn’t forgotten those criticisms — he called the group “disgusting” during his endorsement of former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), whom the Club opposes, late last year.

The two also hail from different parts of the Republican Party. Huckabee is known first and foremost as a social conservative, while the Club focuses exclusively on economic issues.

“Mike Huckabee’s view of the role of government is contrary to ours,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told The Hill. “He believes that government should play a role in the lives of everyday people and he adopted a sort of populist, anti-capitalism stance when he ran for president.”

Keller pointed out that Huckabee was the first candidate to attack presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney on his work for Bain Capital, long before Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and President Obama followed suit. He also said Huckabee “raised many taxes, he spent every dollar he could get his hands on and he supports nanny-state programs like smoking bans and obesity legislation.”

Huckabee did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He blasted the Club while endorsing Thompson in December, questioning its motives.

“The way Club for Growth works is … you write them a big check and say, ‘I want you to attack Tommy Thompson’; they’ll be happy to do it,” he said. “That’s pay-for-play, and I find it disgusting.”

Texas’s Senate primary is the next big fight. Huckabee is backing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R); the Club has spent nearly $1.5 million on ads blasting Dewhurst as a “moderate.” Huckabee cut an ad for Dewhurst last week, calling him the only “proven conservative” in the race and praising him for fighting for anti-abortion-rights legislation as well as for his fiscal record. 

The Club, meanwhile, has bundled a good amount of money for its preferred candidate, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz (R).

Both Cruz’s and Dewhurst’s campaigns relished the contrast.

“I don’t think anyone is surprised that Mike Huckabee, who raised taxes multiple times, is supporting David Dewhurst, who pushed an income tax disguised as a wage tax and increased spending $72 billion,” Cruz campaign manager John Drogin told The Hill.

“Huckabee and Dewhurst are both strong fiscal and social conservatives — Dewhurst cut taxes 51 times, and he’s been endorsed by the largest pro-life organizations here in Texas,” said Dewhurst spokesman Matt Hirsch. “There’s a difference there — you’ve got an outside organization spending money versus a guy who’s come in to help with TV … You’re going to see play out over the next two weeks how much this in-state support brings us.”

The two will also face off in an Arkansas House race, where Beth Anne Rankin (R), a former Huckabee staffer, is running against Army veteran Tom Cotton (R). Huckabee has been Rankin’s most prominent backer and recorded a video heartily praising her and tweaking Cotton, saying that unlike Cotton, Rankin was not someone “who just parachuted into the district because she was looking for a way to get to Washington.”

The Club for Growth has bundled $300,000 in contributions for Cotton, who led Rankin in a recent nonpartisan poll by double digits. 

Neither side got its preferred candidate in Nebraska’s Senate race. Huckabee had backed Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), his 2008 Nebraska campaign chairman, and recorded a robocall describing him as “a proven conservative who has led the constitutional challenge to ObamaCare.”

The Club supported Nebraska state Treasurer Don Stenberg (R), and spent more than $700,000 attacking Bruning, which observers say badly damaged his campaign and helped Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) win the race. The Club took credit for Bruning’s defeat in a press release, but Fischer’s centrist voting record is at odds with the group’s fiscal purity.

The final fight will be in Wisconsin. Huckabee is backing Thompson, while the Club is backing former Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) in a crowded primary.

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