Club redoubling efforts, Toomey says, despite rift

The new president of the Club for Growth promises that the group — despite a recent rift that led to the ouster of its former president — will redouble its efforts this year, spending earlier in the campaign cycle and, for the first time, recruiting candidates.
The new president of the Club for Growth promises that the group — despite a recent rift that led to the ouster of its former president — will redouble its efforts this year, spending earlier in the campaign cycle and, for the first time, recruiting candidates.
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The new Club for Growth president, Pat Toomey, promises to wage an even tougher campaign in 2006.

The new chief, Pat Toomey, a Republican former congressman who was one of the Club’s star candidates in his unsuccessful 2004 primary bid against Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said the organization would focus on open House and Senate seats.

While Toomey would not specify which races the Club is targeting, many Republicans called Minnesota — where Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is vacating his seat to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Mark Dayton (D) — a possible battleground.

“I intend to get involved in at least as many races as last cycle and, in many cases, much earlier,” Toomey said in an interview this week with The Hill. “We’re also continuing to be growing our membership.”

David Keating, the Club’s executive director, said he was hopeful the group would raise more than the $9 million it raised last cycle in so-called “hard money” for candidates. The group brought in $22 million in 2003-2004, Keating said.

Other Republican sources expect the group, which has cultivated a following among conservatives while alienating many party officials, would zero in on Senate races in Rhode Island and Maine.

Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) are up for reelection next year. While Snowe is not expected to face a stiff challenge — she won her second term, in 2000, with 69 percent of the vote — Chafee is a top Democratic target.

Toomey said the Club is open to supporting Democrats who embrace a “pro-growth agenda” but indicated that, for now, it would mostly limit itself to GOP primaries pitting anti-tax, pro-free-trade conservatives against centrists.

“The party establishment exists for the purpose of promoting the party, and that includes retaining incumbents regardless of how they vote,” Toomey said of his fellow Republicans. “We’re not in that business. … For us, the jersey the guy’s wearing isn’t very important at all.”

So far, Toomey observed, the Club has backed only Republicans.

In the interview, Toomey did not mention the split at the Club shortly after the November elections, which prompted former President Stephen Moore to leave the group and found, in early 2005, the Free Enterprise Fund.

Moore characterized the breakup as “an implosion” that had permanently impaired the Club’s ability to influence elections. “I think the tragedy is the Club will never have the impact it once did,” Moore said, calling 2004 the group’s “peak.”

Moore said the Club had helped defeat former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and elect Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) as well as new House members from Nebraska to Florida.

In the wake of the Club’s schism, Moore said, many donors fled the old group for the Free Enterprise Fund, which he will soon leave and will be headed by Mallory Factor, one of the founders of a New York conservative group called the Monday Meeting.

Toomey could not be reached for comment yesterday. Keating, responding to Moore’s remarks, said: “I’ve been working here since late 2000, and here, today … I’m more optimistic than ever about the Club’s impact on economic policy as well as elections.”

He added that, when it came to the Club’s prospects, “I have no idea what Moore is talking about.”

Keating noted there is nothing barring donors from giving to many “economic freedom” groups such as the Club, the Free Enterprise Fund, the Cato Institute and elsewhere. And he said that the Club and the Free Enterprise Fund have different missions, reflected, he said, in their different IRS designations.

“We’re a 527,” he said. “They’re a 501(c)(4). … They can’t do the kinds of things that 527s can do, like comment on candidates and policies during a campaign season. We also have a PAC and can make recommendations to our donors.”

Democrats have had little to say about the Club except to say that they welcome Republican infighting.

Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, the Club’s chief nemesis in the 2004 GOP primaries, said the conservative group was to blame for a Republican loss in a Kansas House race last year and continues to hurt Republicans running this cycle.

Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) flagging poll numbers — the Pennsylvania Republican has been trailing his Democratic rival, state treasurer Bob Casey — are due, in part, Chamberlain Resnick said, to last year’s bloody GOP primary between Specter and Toomey. She said the primary had left the party badly divided.

Terry Sullivan, who managed DeMint’s Senate campaign, offered a different take, saying the Club helped put the then-congressman over the top, raising $500,000 for DeMint in the GOP primary and run-off.

“What they do is they send out fundraising letters and then the checks get sent to them and then you get sent this wonderfully thick Fed/Ex package,” Sullivan recalled.