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Club for Growth fuels Republican rift with primary challenges

Former President George W. Bush (R) shakes hands with Republican Congressman Chris Chocola (R-IN) in Mishawaka, Indiana February 23, 2006. R
Former President George W. Bush (R) shakes hands with Republican Congressman Chris Chocola (R-IN) in Mishawaka, Indiana February 23, 2006. R

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The anti-tax advocacy group Club for Growth, an unapologetic purveyor of in-your-face fiscal conservatism, has no time for the Republican hand-wringing that followed November's bitter election loss.

The combative Club is preparing to spend millions of dollars next year on its latest round of primary challenges to Republican lawmakers who it believes have violated its conservative economic principles.

The confrontational strategy flies in the face of post-election Republican efforts to become a more accommodating and less ideological party, and is certain to deepen the rift between the party's conservative warriors and more pragmatic establishment wing.

It also is certain to cement the Club's reputation, earned over more than a decade of sometimes brutal primary battles, as the outside group most likely to frustrate party bosses.

"Our job is not to elect Republicans, that's not what we do," said Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman who now heads the Club.

"If we make people uncomfortable, that's OK," he said. "Our effectiveness lies in our uncompromising adherence to our mission, and in our proven ability to impact races."

The Club, founded in 1999, has become one of Washington's most powerful conservative pressure groups. It works to promote tax cuts and limited government while pumping millions of dollars into Republican congressional primaries on behalf of the most ideologically pure candidates.

As a result, it frequently challenges incumbents and clashes with party insiders, including Republican congressional campaign committees and other outside pressure groups.

The Club relishes fights with pragmatists like strategist Karl Rove, whose new American Crossroads spin-off, the Conservative Victory Project, will focus on Republican primaries to produce the most electable - but not necessarily the most conservative - candidates.

That kind of bottom-line approach will backfire on Republicans over the long haul, Chocola said.

'PARTY BRAND'

"When all you care about is the Republican Party brand, and you don't care about what the candidate believes, you can't build a sustainable party," he added.

Steve LaTourette, a Republican who retired from Congress in January and now leads the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, said the Club's influence has grown as the party veered to the right. His group is starting its own Super PAC to counter the Club and protect center-right candidates from primary challenges in 2014.

Super PACs, unlike normal political action committees, are barred from contributing directly to candidates or parties but face no limits on spending independently on issues and or on fundraising.

"They have set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner as to who is a good Republican and who is not a good Republican," LaTourette said.

Many Republicans blame their failure to gain control of the Senate on losses in winnable races after conservative candidates - supported by groups like Club for Growth and the fiscally conservative Tea Party - defeated establishment-backed foes in primaries but proved too weak to win the general election.

The Club backed two of the most prominent of those Republican Senate losers, Sharron Angle of Nevada in 2010 and Richard Mourdock of Indiana in 2012.

But Chocola said the Club has far more success stories. It backed fast-rising winners like Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who was Chocola's predecessor at Club for Growth.

He noted that establishment-backed Republicans also lost Senate races last year in Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Virginia. "They all lost because they didn't provide enough of a contrast to their opponent," Chocola said.

With 100,000 members, the Club's political action committee serves as a conduit, or bundler, of contributions to endorsed candidates. In the 2012 cycle, it bundled nearly $7 million to candidates, and its Super PAC spent nearly $18 million on advocacy ads.

LaTourette said the Club's influence was undeniable. Its call for the defeat of House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" proposal during fiscal cliff negotiations in December was critical in turning the tide against it, he said.

Looking toward 2014, the Club has launched a website called "Primary My Congressman." It solicits opponents for nine House Republicans from safe districts won by Republican Mitt Romney with at least 53 percent of the vote. But these members have a lifetime Club for Growth rating of less than 70 percent.

The targeted House members are labeled "Rinos - Republicans in Name Only" for supporting, among other things, an increased national debt ceiling, the "fiscal cliff" budget deal and funding for Superstorm Sandy damage.

Those hit with the threat of a primary are Aaron Schock and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, Mike Simpson of Idaho, Martha Roby of Alabama, Larry Bucshon of Indiana, Renee Ellmers of North Carolina and Rick Crawford of Arkansas.

They defended their voting records, and some questioned the Club's priorities.

"Anytime I have to choose between the influences of D.C. political groups and my fellow Oklahomans - I will always side with my fellow Oklahomans," Lucas said.

Critics said programs like Primary My Congressman, which includes an appeal for donations, are a fundraising tool for the Club but represent an unproductive political strategy.

"You have to win before you can govern, and the Club for Growth eliminates a lot of candidates who many Republicans would consider to be conservative enough," said former congressman Tom Reynolds of New York, who frequently tangled with the group when he headed the House Republican campaign committee.

"I don't see a willingness to compromise," he said. "With Club for Growth, it's all or nothing."

(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Eric Walsh)

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