Jan 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Conservative heavyweights plot new path

Clockwise from top right: Rep. JIm Banks (R-Ind.), Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Alex Mooney.
Clockwise from top left: Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.). Photos: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call (Banks and Mooney), William Campbell/Getty Images and Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency.

The conservative Club for Growth is emerging as one of the most consequential groups within Republican politics — and a textbook example of the GOP's identity crisis in the post-Trump era.

Why it matters: The anti-tax group was closely aligned with former President Trump during his time in office despite his free-spending record. But the Club for Growth is now forging an independent path as a potential anti-Trump bulwark in the presidential race — while still championing establishment-bucking, MAGA-aligned candidates in Congress.

Context: It clashed with Trump last year in two high-profile Senate primaries in 2022, going up unsuccessfully against his endorsed primary picks in Ohio (J.D. Vance) and Pennsylvania (Mehmet Oz).

  • Since then, Club for Growth president David McIntosh and Trump haven't been on speaking terms.
  • On the eve of Trump's 2024 campaign launch, it commissioned polling showing he would be vulnerable against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a one-on-one presidential matchup.

What they're saying: "The majority of people I talked to worry we lost in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and that it’s time for a new standard bearer that believes and will fight for free-market principles," McIntosh told Axios in an interview.

  • Of Trump, he said: "We like each other, but at this point, we’re just focused on different things."

Driving the news: The Club for Growth cut a deal this month with the Kevin McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund to prevent the super PAC from spending in open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts.

  • It was a major concession that helped McCarthy secure the House speakership and showcased the nonprofit's influence among the rebels: Of the 21 original McCarthy holdouts, 16 had received key backing from the group in a past competitive GOP primary, according to Cook Political Report.
  • It also supports House Republicans who want to use the raising of the debt ceiling as leverage to slow government spending, giving it a powerful role in one of the defining fights of this Congress.

What to watch: The Club for Growth is now preparing for an all-out war against former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in anticipation of his candidacy for the Senate.

  • It's endorsed Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), an outspoken Trump defender, and has already spent $16,000 in anti-Daniels advertising to dissuade him from running.
  • If Daniels decides to run, the nonprofit's PAC has already budgeted around $10 million in an advertising blitz against him. "Club for Growth Action will spend eight figures or whatever it takes to get Banks elected," said Club for Growth spokesman Joe Kildea.

Zoom out: It is also shaping up as a possible thorn in the side of other establishment-favored Republican Senate candidates.

  • The Club for Growth is a longtime champion of Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), the first Republican to announce a campaign against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Mainstream Republican officials have been encouraging Gov. Jim Justice to run, given his prominent statewide profile and high approval ratings.
  • "Jim Justice is more moderate than the Club for Growth would want to see in that race," said McIntosh.
  • It is also an ally of Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), who is mulling a campaign against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Republican leaders would prefer a more electable alternative.
  • "Matt Rosendale is a great candidate. He would be well positioned to challenge Tester if all the party gets behind him — and we’ll be playing a big part in making that happen," McIntosh said, noting that Rosendale hasn't decided whether to run.

Between the lines: Of the three races, Republican Senate officials are most worried about Rosendale's potential candidacy costing them a valuable red-state Senate seat.

  • Rosendale was one of the final holdouts against McCarthy's speakership. He even resisted Trump's over-the-phone lobbying pitch for McCarthy, in one of the memorable photos immortalized during the House chaos.
  • Rosendale, a Maryland native, already lost to Tester by three points in 2018. He won re-election in a safe GOP seat with 57% of the vote — five points behind Trump's 2020 performance in the district.
  • Rosendale is one of the leading isolationists in the House. Last March, he was one of just three House Republicans to vote against a resolution in support of the people of Ukraine.

The bottom line: In the 2022 cycle, the Club for Growth's super PAC, its affiliates and a 501(c)4 advocacy arm spent about $150 million in elections. McIntosh said he expects the nonprofit's political groups to match or exceed that total in the 2024 campaign.

  • "We’re now the largest independent super PAC on the Republican side. Our goals this cycle are to help a conservative become president of the United States, win several Senate races with good economic conservatives and help expand the GOP House majority with conservative Republicans," McIntosh said.
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