Interview: The Club For Growth Ascendent

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Here's a Q and A with ex-Rep. Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, whose endorsement of Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd congressional district precipitated Hoffman's quick rise to national prominence. Though the Club lost this race, they scored a coup the next day when Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that he would not spend money on behalf of candidates who faced primaries, even those candidates he personally recruited.

What's your 30,000 feet take on Tuesday night?

For conservatives, really, they did not lose anything on Tuesday night because even in Hoffman's loss, if the Club for Growth had done nothing, Hoffman wouldn't have been able to mount a viable campaign. You would had the same type of policymaker in Scozzafava or Owens. Certainly we would have rather had Hoffman win. A victory in itself [when] a guy like John Cornyn [says it's]  his lesson that the competitive primaries are a good thing. It's not good that party bosses tell the voters who they ought to like. So that's a victory in and of itself.

What's the Club for Growth's brand like out there? I ask that because it seems like a lot of folks in the district didn't like how Hoffman became a talisman for a movement that originated outside the district.

Everyone would say that the [Scozzafava] probably wasn't in hindsight the most attractive candidate for the Republicans. If the county chairman had picked a principled conservative from the beginning, they would have probably won rather easily. So, there was a lot of money coming from all sides, and we don't take solace in this, but she ended up being everything that we said she was. I don't buy the argument that this was a struggle within the conservatives. There was no moderate in the race. There may be examples of that in the future, like in Florida.

Is Florida about moderates versus conservatives?

If somebody wants to make that argument, I think they should make that argument, they should use Florida as a better example of New York 23. I also think it's the lesson that John Cornyn learned, which is that the establishment really doesn't need to pick Crist a year before the field is set. It ought to let the primary voters do that, which we're going to. We've got this ad that we release because of Crist's statements today that he never supported the stimulus, when I think it's pretty clear that he did. Our ad makes that pretty clear. That was maybe a little earlier than we were anticipating doing that. But [Marco] Rubio is in a lot of ways a lot different candidate than Hoffman. He's held office before. He's one of the most articulate conservatives in the county right now, able to really deliver a message in a very attractive way. I guess it could be moderates versus conservatives. I don't know if it's a struggle. What we believe in is competition. We try to support candidates who support our issues--strictly economic -- we don't do social issues.

You haven't done social issues historically, but is there a candidate this year that is a fiscal conservative or social moderate that you'd consider supporting?

We have a disciplined process. We do polling, research and interviews--the social issues aren't questions we ask in any of our interviews.

In New York 23, the Conservative Party was very concerned about Scozzafava's gay marriage stance. That is not something you asked in your polls?

No.

How many members do you have and how much money roughly do you anticipate spending in the primaries?

We have about 40,000 members. It's hard to say how much we anticipate spending. We don't know how many races we're going to be involved in yet. Our membership responded in a very enthusiastic way for Hoffman. We ended up bundling over $370,000 in about four weeks. Our membership got very excited about that race. It depends on the candidates and it depends on the dynamics of the particular race. In the last cycle, we spent over $20 million.

Since the election, have you heard from incumbents, have people reached out to the Club who haven't reached out in the past?

That's a regular occurrence. Members of both the House and Senate reach out to us from time to time and make sure we understand their votes.

Based on your polling, which issue was more important to motivating your members, the deficit, debt and spending, or health care?

The bigger umbrella is spending and the deficit and that is a big smoldering issue.

Are you surprised Cornyn reacted so quickly to the results of New York 23?

I think that Cornyn is a smart guy. I think he sees what a productive role for the NRSC is, and I think he sees that if they come in early before the field is defined, that it is not productive. They've done that a couple times now. He has learned the lesson of Pennsylvania [where former Club president, candidate Pat Toomey, chased Arlen Specter out of the GOP], and of New York 23, and we're seeing Florida develop as something, they seem to backing away from that a little bit.

Are you looking at the Senate race in California as another race where you may play earlier?

What I say is that we study all these races. We don't ignore any of them. There have to be certain criteria in place for us to ask our members to participate. We take our endorsements very seriously. We have to have a candidate supports our issues, and number two, that we think is viable and three that we can make an impact. States like California are very expensive. We're not ignoring California. We're not ignoring really any states. There are only so many paces that we can be effective.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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