Chris Chocola: 'Uniquely effective’

Long before he was the public face of the organization, the Club for Growth made a believer out of Chris Chocola.

The group supported Chocola’s successful second run for the House in 2002 because of his staunch free-market principles. Once in Congress, he found that the Club’s willingness to go against the grain to influence the GOP’s direction made it stand out from the rest.

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“I view it as the most effective organization that I have ever encountered in my political career,” Chocola said. 

“What I learned when I was in the House is really what matters is who pushes the button. What the Club does by identifying fiscal conservatives, serving as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for those candidates, endorsing members and helping them with the resources to be viable — to me that was the most effective thing that could be done to be able to address the problems that I saw.”

In 2006, the Club stood by Chocola despite a tough electoral climate, funding his campaign all the way to Election Day. 

After he lost that race to Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Chocola called Pat Toomey, his former House colleague, who was then the Club for Growth’s president, to thank him for the Club’s support and offer his help going forward. Toomey, who was thinking about another challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), surprised Chocola with his response.

“Just as I was seriously thinking about getting into the Senate race, Chris happened to approach me and say, ‘I have some time on my hands, I’m happy to help you,’ ” said Toomey, who was elected to the Senate last year from Pennsylvania. 

“A light went off in my head: ‘Who would be better [to take over] than this guy who’s owned and operated a substantial business, is completely committed to the principles of the group, and was in Congress, [and] so understands the politics?’ ”

Since taking over the Club in early 2010, Chocola has helped elect a bumper crop of fiscal conservatives who have had an outsize impact on the policy platforms of the Republican Party.

The group spent $8 million in the 2010 election cycle targeting centrist Republicans and longtime incumbents like then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and then-Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). The group was also an early backer of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), then an insurgent candidate who is now viewed as one of the party’s most promising talents.

Of the 29 House and Senate candidates the Club endorsed in 2010, all but two won their primaries, and 20 were elected to Congress.

“The fact that we’re willing to try and hold people accountable for their votes and willing to help those that we view would be a better vote in a Republican primary gets a lot of attention,” Chocola said. “That’s why the Club is uniquely effective — it’s because we’re willing to play in primaries and we win enough that people pay attention.”

The Club is gearing up for another active cycle in 2012. 

Its latest targets include Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), who is running for the Senate. Both have staked out centrist positions that are out of step with the Club. 

Detractors say the group’s success in taking down other Republican incumbents has had a chilling effect on the Republican Party. 

Former Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) said there’s “no question” he would have held onto his House seat in 2006 if the Club hadn’t opposed him in the GOP primary.

“These people all live in fear of them,” Schwarz said. “I don’t have any respect whatsoever for any member who fears the Club for Growth, but quite frankly, that list is pretty long.”

The group’s assertive presence in GOP politics stands in contrast to Chocola’s soft-spoken, folksy style, something Toomey said has helped him through the years.

 “He’s got a demeanor that’s very effective,” Toomey said. “He’s a very likable guy, and low-key.”

The maneuvering over the China currency bill is just the latest example of the Club’s influence on policy.

The bill, which would impose tariffs on countries with undervalued currency, passed the House with the support of 99 Republicans last year, but the Club for Growth has come out strongly against it this time. Not a single Republican has signed a petition that would force a vote on the bill, even though 61 GOP members are co-sponsors of similar legislation.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), the lead sponsor of the China currency bill in the House, told Inside U.S. Trade he couldn’t “get a lick of Republican support” for the discharge petition after the Club designated it a key vote.

The China currency manipulation bill is the latest example of the group setting down a marker to the right of many members in an attempt to change Republican orthodoxy. 

Chocola made a similar play while in Congress, going out on a limb to endorse plans to drastically overhaul entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security — positions that are now mainstream in the Republican Party.

Brooks Kochvar, a Republican operative who was Chocola’s chief of staff in Congress, said many of the positions his former boss supported as a lone voice have migrated to the party platform.

“When he first ran his race he said, ‘This is what I believe and what I want to do,’ and he talked about spending,” said Kochvar. “He didn’t change that message when he was in a tough race. A lot of the things he said then are now the popular things to talk about. When he was talking about budget process reform, it wasn’t the first thing on everyone’s mind.”

The Club also made a mark on the debt-ceiling talks.

As the debate progressed, the Club emerged at key points to oppose tentative compromises — and risked the ire of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by warning that they would “key-vote” any vote in favor of a debt-ceiling plan he proposed.

When the final debt-ceiling agreement came out, the group opposed it but did not threaten to put it on its scorecard.

The seven senators the Club endorsed in 2010 voted no anyway.

Toomey gave Chocola credit for the organization’s stature. 

“The consensus of the [Republican] party has definitely shifted in our direction, and there’s a much stronger commitment to the ideals the Club espouses than there was even five years ago — the Tea Party movement is illustrative of this,” he said. “I think that the Club is as influential and effective as it’s ever been, and Chris has been doing a terrific job at running it.”