Republican 'Club' on War Path Against Moderates
Sep 4, 11:40 am ET
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In less than three years, the conservative Club for Growth has angered many Republicans by launching a series of primary battles against party candidates who are slow to embrace its agenda of lower taxes and limited government.
The latest skirmish is set for next week on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the club has turned its heavy spending and take-no-prisoners attack on six-term Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, prompting a moderate group of Republican officials to rush to his defense.
The Maryland clash of opposing wings of the Republican Party delights Club for Growth President Stephen Moore, head of a 6,000-member group that is frequently at odds with Republican strategists who favor pragmatism over ideology.
"If there is any single role that Club for Growth plays, it is to hold Republicans accountable for votes that betray the Republican agenda," said Moore, who hopes to discover and nurture the next generation of Ronald Reagans. "We think we play an important role in disciplining the party."
Frequently that means challenging a Republican incumbent or candidate who is backed by the party's establishment but does not support the club's vision of tax and budget cuts, Social Security privatization and free trade.
The club targets primary races, where the dollars go farther and the group's conservative ideology is more in tune with hard-core Republican voters, Moore said.
"We have a lot of members who are more driven by ideology than party," Moore said during an interview in his office, rented from a Washington law firm. "We think we are starting to change the culture of the party."
The club spent more than $2 million in 2000 in 17 races, winning 10 of them. This year it has backed about a dozen candidates in primaries and will support a total of about 20.
The group ran off a string of seven wins this year after two early losses, including the defeat in Texas of retiring House Republican Leader Dick Armey's son Scott in his attempt to get elected from his father's district.
Moore said the group took on Gilchrest because he ranks low among Republicans on tax and budget issues, earning a D on one National Taxpayers Union report card. It backs Baltimore County lawyer David Fischer, who is spending more than $300,000 of his own money on the race.
One fund-raising letter to club members on Fischer's behalf brought in more than $150,000, Moore said, and the club will spend another $150,000 on issue advertisements before next Tuesday's primary.
In response, a moderate Republican group, the Republican Main Street Partnership, has jumped into the race to defend Gilchrest, spending at least $100,000 on a week of television ads and a get-out-the-vote drive on election day.
The group's executive director, Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, said the effort is an answer to Club for Growth's attacks on Republican moderates like Gilchrest and New Jersey Rep. Marge Roukema, who barely survived a primary challenge by a club candidate in 2000 and avoided another this year by retiring.
"It's unfortunate that they keep going after moderate Republicans," Resnick said. "We thought it was time to stop them."
With a membership list dominated by Wall Street financiers and executives, Club for Growth expects to become even more influential under new campaign finance regulations that limit soft-money donations to parties.
It models itself after Emily's List, the liberal group that raises money mostly for Democratic candidates favoring abortion rights, by "bundling" donations to its hand-picked candidates. It asks members to write checks to the candidate but send them to club headquarters in Washington, which then passes them on.
That allows the club to be responsible for far more in donations than it otherwise would be allowed, boosting its clout and, Moore hopes, spreading its influence.
"We're trying to let candidates know that if they ever voted for a tax increase, we'll never support them and in fact we'll work to defeat them," he said. "We're trying to get the word out to even the lowest grass-roots level that if you're a Republican you aren't allowed to vote for taxes."
The club is already building a team of House members, headed by one of its favorites, freshman Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake. Moore said members are licking their chops at the possibility he would make a Senate run and challenge maverick Arizona Sen. John McCain in a 2004 primary.
"Our members loathe John McCain," Moore said.
Other club favorites include Florida Rep. Ric Keller and two-term Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey, mentioned as a possible primary challenger to Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004.