"We don't get involved in races unless we think we can be a determining factor," said President Chris Chocola, a former GOP House member from Indiana. "We can love a candidate, and if they are going to win without us, we will let them win without us."
The club's power lies in its donor network. In North Carolina's 8th District, dentist Scott Keadle got a late infusion of much-needed cash after the group endorsed him on March 19, six weeks before the Republican primary. He received $45,000 in 71 donations over the course of the month immediately following the endorsement. Keadle, who advanced to a late-summer primary runoff, had taken more than three months to collect his previous $45,000 in individual donations from a similar number of donors.
In Arkansas's 4th District, Tom Cotton reaped more than $240,000 in individual donations in the six weeks after the club endorsed him on Feb. 14, more than half of what he had raised in that category in the six months before the endorsement. Cotton is now the Republican nominee.
The Club for Growth's willingness to spend on mass communications also makes it formidable. The group's super PAC spent $1.45 million on ads in Indiana's Senate primary, helping conservative Republican Richard Mourdock dislodge six-term incumbent Richard Lugar in May. The club estimated that total independent expenditures by three of its entities amounted to 40 percent of all independent expenditures during the final 30 days of the campaign.
Although conservative candidates revel in a club endorsement, GOP establishmentarians with an eye on majority-making aren't always thrilled with its decisions. Lugar's loss improved the general-election prospects of Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic nominee. In late 2009, the group joined the conservative revolt against Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava in the special election in New York's 23rd District, instead supporting Conservative Party insurgent Doug Hoffman. The split on the right helped Democratic Rep. Bill Owens win his seat with just 48.3 percent of the vote.
But antiestablishment fervor fuels the club and other conservative organizations that wield financial heft. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has spent $1.7 million on independent expenditures in Senate races so far this cycle, is the leadership PAC of conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who openly prizes purity over electability. "We often support underdog candidates who have been overlooked or even opposed by the Washington establishment," said Matt Hoskins, the PAC's spokesman.
That maxim reverberated in Nebraska's Senate primary, where DeMint endorsed Don Stenberg against Jon Bruning, who had been the front-runner in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Ben Nelson. Stenberg raised a paltry $53,000 during the third quarter of 2011, but after DeMint's endorsement at the end of the year and a nod from the Club for Growth in 2012, Stenberg's fundraising ballooned to $244,000 in the first quarter of this year. The battle between Stenberg and Bruning, however, allowed Deb Fischer, arguably the least conservative candidate in the field, to eke out a plurality win in the primary. Meanwhile, in Texas, DeMint and the club helped Ted Cruz force quintessential insider David Dewhurst into a late-July runoff.