Conservative unrest fuels Club fundraising: Toomey

The Club for Growth’s political action committee has raised nearly twice as much money in this election cycle as it did in the last — a measure of anger among fiscal conservatives, says the group’s president, former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

“A lot of Republicans have become disappointed with the national party,” Toomey said in an interview last week, “They’re just appalled with what they see from Republicans.”

He gets at least one letter a week from the Club’s big donors telling him they are upset with congressional Republicans for their failure to reduce federal spending.

The PAC has doubled not just the money raised but also the amount of “bundled” contributions donors have given to candidates. While that can be attributed largely to the organization’s established prominence this cycle after its astonishing growth last cycle, it also illustrates the growing frustration among grassroots conservatives about a perceived lack of fiscal discipline from GOP leaders in Washington.

Through March 30, the Club’s PAC had raised $1.5 million, compared with $786,699 as of March 30, 2004, according to internal numbers. Club supporters have also contributed $1.8 million to candidates recommended by its PAC, compared with $979,335 at the same stage two years ago.

The Club’s 527 arm is also well ahead of its own fundraising from the last cycle, with $5.2 million in contributions at the end of March, up from $4.3 million last time.

Led by its brash founder and former president, Stephen Moore, the Club was a force in the 2004 cycle, assisting Toomey’s spirited conservative primary challenge of Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and threatening to unseat other GOP lawmakers who did not represent its vision of limited government.

The Club endured an internal rift shortly after the last election, when board members voted in December 2004 to remove Moore as president. That threatened to splinter support after Moore and a few core fundraisers established the Free Enterprise Fund on the same principles for which they had created the Club.

The Club continues to rankle centrist Republicans, not least by targeting two GOP incumbents: Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and freshman Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.). The party’s campaign committees have backed the incumbents.

This cycle, the Club’s PAC has recommended that its donors support nine other candidates, including Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) in his primary win over former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez. The Cuellar endorsement marked the first time the Club has backed a Democrat, and Toomey said members supported the move overwhelmingly.

“On the really important things, he was with us,” Toomey said, citing Cuellar’s votes supporting a repeal of the estate tax, class-action reform and the Central America Free Trade Agreement. “We just felt like we can’t leave him there standing alone.”

Under Toomey’s guidance, the Club has involved itself in races much earlier than it did last cycle to give donors more time to contribute to the individual campaigns. To do that, the PAC made its recommendations as soon as its staff could vet the candidates.

The Club focuses more on open seats than on challenging sitting Republicans, but that does not mean it will weigh in on every open-seat race. It is not getting involved, for example, in the race to replace Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who is running for governor, because “three great Republicans” are running to replace him.

In addition to Cuellar and Republicans Steve Laffey, who is challenging Chafee, and Tim Walberg, who is challenging Schwarz, the PAC has endorsed Republicans Sharron Angle (Nev.-2), Kevin Calvey (Okla.-5), Jim Jordan (Ohio-4), Phil Krinkie (Minn.-6), Rick O’Donnell (Colo.-7), Bill Sali (Idaho-1), Adrian Smith (Neb.-3) and John Campbell (Calif.-48).

Toomey has established a vetting process to ensure that each of the candidates its PAC supports is a true conservative who would “go down to the floor and vote against the Medicare prescription-drug benefit” and also has a clear shot at winning despite a tendency “to ruffle feathers within the party establishment.”

In addition to the standard interviews and questionnaires, the Club sends a staff member to each district it is considering involvement in to ask about individual candidates. The group then conducts a poll to make sure the candidate has a shot.

“We want to make sure there is a plausible path to victory,” Toomey said.

He said the group would get involved in “three to five” more races before the end of the cycle, but he would not say which districts that might include. It could hinge on which members choose to retire.

Club members’ complaints about GOP leadership spending echo a common refrain among conservative Republicans in the House and Senate who increasingly demand spending restraints, such as reforms to the annual budget process.

Donors give money to the Club because they know their $100 check makes a bigger splash bundled with other $100 checks than if sent individually to a campaign or to the Republican National Committee, Toomey said.

“We have a brand, and people trust the brand,” he added. “Our members are true believers.”