Why the Club for Growth Is Changing Leadership

David McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana, is vowing that the free-market group will continue to be a thorn in the side of the GOP establishment.

The Club for Growth has a new leader: David McIntosh, a former House member from Indiana and former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, will become the free-market group's president on Jan. 1, the Club's Board of Directors voted Wednesday. He will succeed outgoing President Chris Chocola in a transition that each side says has been planned for months and is amicable.

In separate interviews, McIntosh and Chocola emphasized the change in leadership does not mean a change in mission for a group that prides itself on combating the Republican establishment, even though the switch comes after a year in which many of the insurgent candidacies it backed failed to win Republican primaries. Those defeats spurred some GOP leaders to boast after the primaries that the "tea party establishment," including the club, were no longer relevant.

"We just had a board meeting, and the board decided we're going to double our efforts," McIntosh told National Journal in his first interview since being elected president. "And I'm happy to lead that."

Chocola, who took over as president in 2009, said he simply decided to retire, blaming the long days of travel between the club's headquarters in Washington and his homes in Florida and Michigan. "I love the club. I love everybody at the club. I love the mission of the club," he said. "I don't love airplanes."

He added: "I've recently moved to northern Michigan. You really can't get here from there. Once I set the date to move, I thought it was the right thing to do."

Chocola will remain with the group as a member of the board of directors.

Rumors swirled last week that Chocola was on his way out, which the group's spokesman at the time vehemently denied. National Review reported last week that McIntosh was "almost certainly" poised to become the club's new president.

In the 56-year-old McIntosh, the group has picked a movement conservative who, like Chocola, is also from Indiana. ("He's another gray-haired guy from Indiana, so people might not even know the difference," Chocola joked.) He served the state's 2nd congressional district from 1995 to 2001 after stints in in the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations. In 2000, he launched an unsuccessful effort for governor and in 2012, despite earning the club's endorsement, failed in his bid to return to Congress in 2012, losing in the Republican primary to Rep. Susan Brooks.

"David has been part of the conservative movement for 30 years, not to make him sound old," Chocola said. "He has a long track record of supporting conservative causes and being committed to conservative principles."

McIntosh signaled that the group, which promotes an often-uncompromising message of free-market advocacy, won't back off its criticism of Republicans who support a softer approach to governing—even though those same Republicans argue their agenda is necessary to win competitive races in swing districts and purple states.

"In my view, the criticism in establishment, the criticism is misplaced," he said. "The Club for Growth actually strengthens the Republican brand."

Chocola had a nearly six-year-long tenure during which the Club became a major force in Republican politics, a time that, not coincidentally, coincided with the rise of the tea party and a spate of primary challenges to establishment-friendly candidates. Among the candidates backed by the group that year were Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee—none of whom were preferred by the National Republican Senatorial Committee when they began their campaigns. In 2012, it endorsed the victorious campaigns of Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake.

During that time, the club emerged as the preeminent group of the many tea-party-aligned groups, able to steer money and credibility to candidates it considered both viable and authentically conservative on fiscal issues. Its leaders, including Chocola, boasted that their superior candidate-vetting process had helped them avoid endorsing some of the party's most notoriously self-destructive nominees, like Christine O'Donnell in 2010 and Todd Akin in 2012.

But Chocola's tenure also had blemishes, including the club's support in 2012 of Richard Mourdock against Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar. After winning the primary, Mourdock lost his race to Democrat Joe Donnelly after suggesting that "God intended" for women to be raped. His defeat, critics said, was proof that the internecine warfare practiced by the club sabotages the party's efforts to win legislative majorities.

The club appeared to take a different tack this year, endorsing a handful of candidates—like Dan Sullivan in Alaska—who also had the support of the Republican establishment. It also notably stayed out of a handful of primaries, including Sen. Mitch McConnell's contest against Republican Matt Bevin, who earned the support of other tea-party groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund.

But the club also threw its full support behind Chris McDaniel, a state senator from Mississippi who was challenging Sen. Thad Cochran. The longtime incumbent had the backing of the Republican establishment, which dealt the Club for Growth a stunning defeat this summer when Cochran unexpectedly won a runoff race against McDaniel.

Asked if he's prepared for the criticism that comes with being president of a controversial group, McIntosh said he didn't think it would be a problem.

"I learned, running for office and serving in office," he said, "you've got to let a lot of criticism flow off your back and don't take it personally."