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In Bringing Down Bob Bennett, Club for Growth Proves a Real 'Power Player'

5 years ago
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Chris Chocola, Club for Growth presidentA few months ago, Chris Wallace of "Fox News Sunday" featured Club for Growth President Chris Chocola as a "Power Player of the Week." Last week, that status was confirmed. Thanks in large part to the Club for Growth -- a powerful, free market, pro-growth conservative organization -- on Saturday an incumbent Republican senator whose name had never been linked to scandal was simply denied his party's nomination.

The ouster of Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah "marks the first time the Club's PAC has defeated an incumbent Republican senator," Chocola wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "It will set off a political earthquake in Congress." You could hardly blame him for crowing: The Club began attacking Bennett in TV ads many months ago.

In Florida. the Club for Growth was an early backer of Marco Rubio's primary challenge of Gov. Charlie Crist, a campaign that drove Crist out of the Republican primary and out of the Republican Party altogether. Former Club President Pat Toomey's primary challenge had the same effect against Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who left the GOP for the Democratic Party last year. It is possible that by the end of the year the Club for Growth will have been instrumental in electing three solidly conservative U.S. senators.

Unlike many socially conservative organizations, whose barks are louder than their bites, the Club for Growth spends real money on campaigns. As Chocola, a former congressman from Indiana, noted in his e-mail, the "Club for Growth spent more than $180,000 in Independent Expenditures in an effective campaign that drove voters to caucuses in record numbers and educated voters and convention delegates about Bennett's record." Because Bennett was ousted in a convention, the Club was able to have a major impact for relatively little cost. To put it in context, it reportedly spent more than $1 million in last year's NY-23 special congressional election.

Doing big things is almost always controversial, and the anti-Bennett jihad did not sit well with many in the media. David Brooks called it "a damn outrage," and E.J. Dionne Jr. characterized the involuntary retirement of this three-term senator as "almost a non-violent coup -- because they denied the sitting senator even a chance of getting on the primary ballot."

This is nothing new. In recent years, critics have accused the Club of many sins, including inadvertently helping elect Democrats. Liberals also charged that in pursuing "ideological purity," conservative groups like the Club for Growth were not electing conservatives but were actually "reducing their dwindling numbers."

Taking it a step further, a favorite Republican of Washington's liberal elite asserted that the Club's efforts might be advancing liberal legislation. Writing in 2009, David Frum predicted: "If the Democrats do succeed in pushing through national health insurance, they really should set aside a little extra money to erect a statue to Pat Toomey. They couldn't have done it without him!" No word yet as to whether the statue will be erected.

Criticism of the Club has not been limited to media elites, though. It has also made enemies among prominent Republicans. Mike Huckabee (whom the Club targeted for raising taxes) called it "the Club for Greed," while John McCain derided it for opposing Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the Club has also come into conflict with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (who endorsed top Club targets, including Dede Scozzafava and Bob Bennett).

These were easier charges to level during bad Republican years such as 2006 and 2008, but it seems now that the Club for Growth's vision may be coming to fruition and the critics may be silenced. Sometimes you have to cut out some of the underbrush before you can see growth, and with two fiscal conservatives who will now face off in Utah (the Club has vowed to stay out of the primary) as well as Toomey in Pennsylvania and Rubio in Florida, it is possible that the Club will be instrumental in electing three youngish, conservative and charismatic lawmakers to join the Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns of the Senate.

What is more, it is likely that Bennett's loss might make other Republican incumbents toe the line -- at least for the next several months. That's certainly the intention. Club Vice President Andy Roth recently Tweeted, "I would recommend that all Republican Senators who are co-sponsors to Wyden-Bennett (S. 391) to remove their names immediately." (S. 391, the "Healthy Americans Act," was considered by many conservatives to be as bad as ObamaCare because of its inclusion of individual mandates, increased taxes and subsidies, and because it would have required Americans to pay their health care premiums through the IRS.) What this means for Orrin Hatch, Bennett's fellow Utah senator, is anybody's guess. The underlying lesson may be that movement conservatives have realized that -- in certain states and districts -- they don't have to settle for establishment "go-along-to-get-along" types. Conservatives may be happy to settle for Mike Castle in Delaware or Mark Kirk in Illinois, but be less tolerant of "Republicans in Name Only" in such bastions as Utah and South Carolina.

Bennett ran into trouble when he voted for TARP and then co-sponsored S. 391. As Chocola noted in his e-mail to supporters, Bennett also "voted for billions in wasteful spending, including the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, and played a key role in killing legislation that could have reformed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that helped create the financial crisis."

Appearing on my podcast, Roth said, "What's important to know about Bennett is . . . he's counsel to Mitch McConnell . . . and with that influence he has undermined the efforts of Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, who have tried to move mountains to enforce pro-growth policies and reduce the size of government."

The ultimate lesson learned here is that the current political environment is toxic for many incumbents. Grassroots conservatives are fed up. "The Tea Party movement is the fuel that is driving this movement," Roth told me. Regardless of the reason, it seems the Club for Growth's longstanding vision is finally coming into its own as its strategies and the zeitgeist intersect in 2010.

The Club for Growth has now taken down one liberal Republican senator, and there may be more to come. This is a big deal. A Senate seat, as Rod Blagojevich rightly noted, is "a valuable thing." And Chris Wallace's decision to pick Chris Chocola as a Power Player seems to have been right on the money.

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