Club for Growth unleashes financial juggernaut for 2020 races

Club for Growth unleashes financial juggernaut for 2020 races
© Greg Nash

The conservative Club for Growth is flexing its financial muscle this year, doling out millions of dollars to conservative congressional candidates and outspending most other outside groups as it looks to help the GOP keep control of the Senate and improve Republican chances in the House.

Seeking to establish itself as a financial powerhouse, Club for Growth is spending in about two dozen down-ballot contests after raising $55 million this year, making 2020 its most lucrative cycle yet as it pursues its agenda of promoting candidates who adhere to the group’s mantle of economic conservatism.

Club for Growth has spent more than $15.7 million in advertising for Republicans, according to tracking firm Advertising Analytics, and has outspent almost every other group not affiliated with a presidential candidate, according to data from OpenSecrets. The group said it plans to spend at least $35 million in total this cycle — a $15 million jump from both 2016 and 2018.

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The spending is part of Club for Growth’s plan to back its endorsees with a wave of advertising or by tearing down their competitors. Among the candidates are some running in the most closely watched races this year, including Tommy Tuberville, who’s running for the Senate in Alabama, and candidates in swing House seats such as Nancy Mace in South Carolina, who’s challenging first-term Rep. Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamMultiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert Hoyer: Maskless Republicans a public health threat Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D) in the state’s 1st Congressional District.

The spending comes amid growing GOP concerns about President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE’s decline in national polls and rising worries the Republican control of the Senate could be at risk. Club for Growth initially opposed Trump but has become a strong supporter of his agenda.

“I would say that Club for Growth is the most active independent super PAC in the country,” said David McIntosh, the group’s president, in an interview with The Hill. “As you can see, we’re a magnitude greater and are seeking to have a huge impact on the Republican primaries and then in the general election, as well in keeping the Senate and helping to build a conservative majority in the House.”

McIntosh said Club for Growth has interviewed more than 250 candidates this cycle as it mulls who to back.

“What we want to do is be the premier group for free market and limited government conservatives, that people know when Club for Growth endorses a candidate, they’re going to stand and fight for those issues and they’ve been vetted, so they’re good leaders,” said McIntosh, who also represented Indiana for three terms in the House.

The group has made advertising reservations for Rich McCormick in Georgia’s 7th District, Eric Brakey in Maine’s 2nd District, Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryGOP-Trump fractures on masks open up Innovation in veteran posttraumatic care requires collaboration Democrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill MORE in Pennsylvania’s 10th District, Nick Freitas in Virginia’s 7th District and Mace in South Carolina’s 1st District.

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All seats are rated as “toss ups” by The Cook Political Report. Club for Growth is also spending money in a number of districts rated as “lean” Democrat or Republican.

One example of the impact Club for Growth is seeking is in Maine, where Brakey is running in the July 14 GOP primary for the chance to take on first-term Rep. Jared Golden (D) in a district that Trump won in 2016 by 10 points but that Democrats narrowly flipped in 2018.

Club for Growth has boosted Brakey, a former state senator, with hundreds of thousands in spending, including for an ad released this week casting him as a true ally of the White House.

“I do think it’ll help. It helps Brakey with the airwaves with regards to maintaining a presence and making sure people know who Eric is before they vote,” said David Boyer, his communications director. “What they’ve invested in the [2nd District] race is not small, it’s appreciated.”

While Club for Growth is mostly backing candidates who don’t clash with the GOP, it has also gone after candidates strongly backed by the Republican establishment.

The most notable example of Club for Growth going against the party grain is in the open Kansas Senate race, where the group has not endorsed a candidate but is attacking Rep. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallGOP scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary The Hill's Campaign Report: Campaigns prepare for homestretch run to Election Day The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Obama reunite for socially distanced conversation MORE (R), who has garnered support among mainstream Republicans.

Establishment Republicans have voiced concerns that controversial former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach could put the normally safe red seat in play if he ends up clinching the nomination.

But Club for Growth has still gone after Marshall, a physician, including for voting on a funding bill in 2018 that included money for the World Health Organization.

“I think they’re trying to make an example of Marshall,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist who also writes opinion columns for The Hill. “The problem with that is if Marshall does not win that primary and Kobach does, then we have a real good chance of losing that seat. So they’re not doing us any favors.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are attacking Club for Growth over their involvement.

“The Club For Growth has done an absolutely terrific job pushing reckless and extreme Republicans through primaries, thinning out an already out of touch and cash-strapped class of Republican recruits,” said Robyn Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

McIntosh defended Club for Growth’s endorsements, maintaining that the group effectively walks the line between fighting for staunch conservatives that sometimes irk the party while not risking the GOP’s standing in Congress.

“We’ve made it clear that we’re going to fight for more conservative, more free-market members, but at the same time Club for Growth won’t get into a battle where it could cost the seat for the Republican majority. The logic behind that is essentially if I help a bunch of really good champions get elected but they’re in the minority, they don’t have as much influence over what happens in Congress,” he said.

McIntosh added that he’s confident Republicans can keep the Senate and he believes they have a real shot at flipping the House, though few strategists think the lower chamber will be in play in November.

The investment comes as the president sees his approval ratings erode over his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his response to the protests over systemic racism and police brutality roiling the country.

Democratic super PACs are also spending big in this election cycle, much of it focused in the presidential race, including groups such as American Bridge 21st Century.

“As I’ve been talking to folks around the country, they’re looking at a president who, depending on what poll you look at, is anywhere from 44 percent to 38 percent, which means they’re starting to hit sirens because that will obviously have a down-ballot impact. And so that’s where outside groups are going to potentially play an outsized role, and given Club for Growth’s involvement in the past, they would be an obvious player,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye.

Strategists said it was unclear how much Club for Growth’s messaging will break through in a time when the White House absorbs so much political oxygen, but McIntosh said he hopes that Club for Growth’s expanding profile would increase its influence.

“I’m hoping what you’ll see is both incumbents and people who are thinking of running ... thinking, ‘OK, if I want to have a shot at Club for Growth endorsement, I’ve got to be for their economic agenda, for tax cuts and less regulation and stopping crony capitalist spending,’ ” McIntosh said. “That’s my hope, that not only will they seek out Club for Growth but they’ll in their careers look at the agenda and say, ‘That’s what I want to stand for in my voting.’ ”