It's enough that even some of the group's once-ardent critics have come around to embracing it — even if the Club's leader can barely believe what he's hearing.
"People call me once in a while and say, the establishment folks, even the McConnell folks, they say, 'You guys are kind of the model,' " said Chris Chocola, the Club's president, in an interview at the group's sixth-floor office in downtown Washington. "So, get that in writing. I'd love to get that in writing."
In truth, Chocola, a 52-year-old former congressman from Indiana, argues his group hasn't changed at all since it began getting deeply involved in campaigns in the early 2000s. The Club has always carefully vetted and evaluated prospective endorsees closely, and held high standards for finding Republicans with a deep appreciation of the perils of over-taxation and regulation. But even if the Club for Growth hasn't changed, the world around it has.
By involving itself in less-scrutinized open House primaries, it has played a seminal role in moving the House Republican caucus to the right over the years. But there's a cost to the success: Although it remains the preeminent conservative outside group, it has inspired the proliferation of other insurgent organizations just like it. And many of them — like the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action Fund — have taken an even more antagonistic relationship toward the Republican powers-that-be.
The result is the Club now sits in the political center of the GOP in a way perhaps no other conservative group does — able to maintain credibility with both establishment and activist forces in the party. The question is, with those two sides always at each other's throats, can it stay there for long?
"In comparison to groups like Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project, the Club has been the slightly more the grown-up in the room this cycle in terms of how they approach races," said Brian Walsh, a former NRSC spokesman who has been critical of the organization.
Chocola offers an alternate and more-flattering explanation: His group's track record has simply won over many skeptics. He points to the election of Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Pat Toomey — himself the Club's former president — as proof the group picks not only conservative candidates but candidates who win general elections. He's quick to point out the men and women who never received his imprimatur, like Christine O'Donnell or Todd Akin, who not only lost but embarrassed the GOP before defeat.
"When people start saying we're irrational, I say, 'OK, so you'd rather have Arlen Specter than Pat Toomey. You'd rather have Charlie Crist than Marco Rubio?' " he said. "So we have examples of — really?"
To be sure, the Club still elicits eye-rolls from GOP political professionals who regard it as a group with a big bark but limited bite. Others, citing the group's opposition to veteran Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi or Rep. Mike Simpson's primary foes in Idaho, swear the group is as destructive to the GOP as it's ever been. And in an hour-long interview, Chocola regularly mocked and lampooned the party committees and seasoned operatives he thinks have no idea how to build a sustainable congressional majority. Indeed, the Club made a point of announcing it would be using Jamestown Associates to produce its ads this cycle. The group was blacklisted by McConnell and the party committees for aiding McConnell's Republican primary rival, Matt Bevin.