Who’s Afraid of the Club for Growth?

The most fearsome 527 has a bark much worse than its bite.

You want to know why the right is furious at Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa.? It has very little to do with Specter’s “warning” to President Bush that a nominee to the Supreme Court who favors repeal of Roe v. Wade will never win Senate confirmation. The giveaway is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose support Specter will likely need to become Judiciary Committee chairman, dumped all over Specter on Fox News Sunday even after Specter explained that he had never “warned” Bush about anything but merely noted in answer to a reporter’s question that Democrats repeatedly filibustered anti-Roe judicial candidates during the last Congress and were likely to do so again. Specter (who supports Roe) further pointed out that he’d voted to confirm lots of anti-Roe candidates in the past, including all of Bush’s nominees, not to mention sitting Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

The right’s problem with Specter extends beyond his support for abortion rights. Across the board, Specter is an old-fashioned “gypsy moth” (Republican moderate) at a time when the GOP is trying to exterminate gypsy moths. What makes the right mad is that a well-publicized and well-funded attempt this year to make an example of Specter to other deviationist Republican officeholders failed miserably. Specter won re-election.

The organization that tried to expel Specter is the Club for Growth, a supply-side group whose name is a play on the Club of Rome (a liberal think tank whose best-selling 1972 report, The Limits of Growth, spawned the Carter-era notion that we’d entered an “era of limits”). Since its inception in 1999, the Club for Growth has maintained a reputation for ruthlessness unmatched by other political action committees and soft-money 527 advocacy groups. (The Club for Growth is both.) The Philadelphia Inquirer has called it a “fund-raising pit bull of the conservative right.” Grrr!

What distinguishes the Club for Growth from other pro-GOP groups is that it will target Republican incumbents for defeat if the club deems these incumbents insufficiently committed to cutting taxes. (Specter voted against Bush’s first tax cut.) The club labels such moderates “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs, and showers money on their Republican primary opponents. Grrr!

The Club for Growth also posts the names of those it deems RINOs when they vote to support pathetically outdated concepts like overtime pay for workers. Grrr!

This is not the way most Republican leaders in Congress and in the White House like to do business—or at least not the way these leaders say they like to do business. But Stephen Moore, the Club for Growth’s president, says he doesn’t care what Republican leaders say. “[P]oliticians are cowards,” he told the New York Times Magazine’s Matt Bailast year. “We say we’re going to run someone against them, and they start wetting their pants.” Grrr!

Obviously it does the Club for Growth’s pit-bull reputation no good if it spends $2.3 million to defeat Specter and then fails to get its man. Indeed, after Specter won re-election, I found myself wondering how many RINOs the Club for Growth had chased out of Congress in the past. “They’ve never defeated an incumbent,” answered Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a pro-moderate PAC that tangles constantly with the Club for Growth. “The closest they came was Arlen Specter.”

The Club for Growth got a lot of publicity in 2000 when it targeted Rep. Marge Roukema, a Republican moderate from New Jersey. Her primary challenger came close to beating her, but in the end, Roukema won. The club targeted Republican moderate Wayne Gilchrist in 2002, but in the end, Gilchrist won. (After the primary, the club gave Gilchrist $250 so it could claim him as one of that year’s “victories.”) The club thought about targeting Sen. John McCain this year but couldn’t find a Republican challenger serious enough to give money to. And so on.

When you get past Moore’s bluster, the Club for Growth really isn’t all that interested in taking on Republican incumbents. “Our view is the best strategy on RINOs is not to have them elected in the first place,” says David Keating, the group’s executive director. In practice that means that the Club for Growth, like most political givers, prefers to fund candidates competing for an open seat, where there’s no incumbent advantage to overcome. RINOs may be dying out, but the Club for Growth has done nothing to thin the herd.