Can the Club Turn Its Primary Season Around?

After a weak start, the conservative group aims to score in Alabama and Georgia.

JACKSON, MS - JUNE 24: U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) speaks to supporters during his 'Victory Party' after holding on to his seat after a narrow victory over Chris McDaniel at the Mississippi Children's Museum on June 24, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi. Cochran, a 36-year Senate incumbent, defeated Tea Party-backed Republican candidate Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel in a tight runoff race. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (National Journal)

After a rough start to the 2014 primary season, the Club for Growth hopes to reverse its fortunes over the next week with wins in a handful of open, safe-seat House GOP runoff elections.

So far, the influential conservative group has a losing record in competitive primaries in which it has made endorsements this cycle. The club backed the eventual winners in Republican nominating contests in the Nebraska Senate race and in Texas's 4th Congressional District, but its favored candidates fell short in the Mississippi Senate race, Idaho's 2nd District, and in the initial round of voting in Alabama's 6th District. (The group also endorsed Tom Cotton in the Arkansas Senate race, but he ran uncontested in the May primary.)

On Tuesday, the club, one of Washington's most powerful outside groups in Republican primaries, gets to try again in Alabama, where it supported Gary Palmer, cofounder of the conservative nonprofit Alabama Policy Institute, over state Rep. Paul DeMarco. The club's first preferred candidate in the 6th District — orthopedic surgeon Chad Mathis — failed to advance.

The following week, the Club for Growth has a stake in two runoffs in Georgia. In the battle to succeed Senate hopeful Jack Kingston in the 1st District, the group is backing surgeon Bob Johnson over state Sen. Earl "Buddy" Carter. And in the 11th District, state Sen. Barry Loudermilk has the club on his side in his effort to succeed Rep. Phil Gingrey.

In the two races that appear to be the closest — Alabama's 6th District and Georgia's 1st District — the club has backed up its endorsements with six-figure television ad buys down the home stretch.

In Alabama, the group has taken a winding path to the finish line. After watching Mathis lose in the primary, it backed Palmer, who trailed early on but appears to have surged ahead in the final weeks. He even led DeMarco nearly 2-1 in an automated poll conducted by the GOP firm Cygnal, which is not working for either candidate, last week.

Palmer looked like an underdog after finishing second in the primary, 13 points behind DeMarco. But in late June and early July, DeMarco underwent "the most profound self-destruction I have ever seen from a congressional candidate," said Cliff Sims, founder of political commentary website Yellowhammer News. DeMarco performed poorly in debates, was panned by the local media for dodging questions, and overreacted by running negative ads that seemed to backfire, Sims said.

Thanks to that series of unfortunate events, the club's endorsement, and its more than $250,000 in spending during the runoff, could push Palmer over the top in a close race. Sims said he expects Palmer to win narrowly, despite the wide spread in the automated poll.

While Palmer stayed out of the mud, airing almost entirely positive TV ads, the Club for Growth hit DeMarco with a TV ad on tax and fee hikes he supported in the state Legislature.

And beyond his backing from the club, Palmer has an advantage in the fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hasn't gotten involved. The chamber and the club have lined up against each other in a number of GOP primaries this year — most notably, the Mississippi Senate race between Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

"It's a somewhat unique situation that Palmer not only has that kind of movement conservative street cred, but also, the business community looks at him as a thinking man's conservative and not a 'let's burn everything down' conservative," Sims said.

The chamber and the club are going head to head in the contentious runoff in Georgia's 1st District, however. Carter, an elected official for more than 20 years who has much of the state party establishment in his corner, received an endorsement from the chamber last week. The business group has yet to spend any money on the race.

The club, meanwhile, spent roughly $360,000 on TV ads at the beginning of the month calling Carter's conservative bona fides into question in hopes of boosting Johnson, a political newcomer. Johnson also won the backing of several other national conservative groups, but none have come to bat for him in the way the club has. GOP strategists say the two candidates are running neck and neck entering the final week of the campaign, so the late outside spending surge could help tip the balance.

"These groups really influence the outcome of campaigns by putting substantial resources behind their chosen candidates," said Sean Donnelly, a Georgia-based Republican consultant who is currently not affiliated with any federal campaigns. "This is especially true in Georgia this year with a donor base spread thin by an unprecedented number of federal candidates running."

The club's most ironclad chance for victory this month may lie in the Peach State's 11th District, where Loudermilk appears to be in the driver's seat against Bob Barr, a former House member and onetime Libertarian presidential candidate. Recent internal polling from Loudermilk, who finished first in the May primary, showed him leading Barr by more than 20 percentage points, and the club has so far chosen not to air any ads in the race.

Two other House GOP runoffs over the next week haven't garnered much attention from national organizations. In North Carolina's 6th District, where Rep. Howard Coble is vacating his seat at the end of the term, Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., takes on Baptist pastor Mark Walker on Tuesday. And on July 22, another baptist pastor, Jody Hice, and businessman Mike Collins are vying to take over in the 10th District for outgoing Rep. Paul Broun.

After the July runoffs, the Club for Growth will have its sights set on GOP primaries in Michigan, where the group is supporting Justin Amash's bid for a second term, and in Kansas, where it is behind Rep. Mike Pompeo as he tries to beat back a comeback bid from former Rep. Todd Tiahrt.