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Club for Growth builds clout by hammering left, right

Stephen Moore, an economist and staff member for the libertarian Cato Institute, came up with the idea for the Club for Growth and persuaded financier-philanthropist Richard Gilder and Thomas Rhodes, president of the National Review, to go along.
February 8, 2004

WASHINGTON -- After scoring a publicity coup last month at the start of the Democratic Party primaries, the scrappy Club for Growth is setting its sights on the new Democratic front-runner, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The group's television ad lampooning the Howard Dean campaign as a "government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving . . . Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show" ran a few times in Iowa and then got picked up by the national news media and even Comedy Central.

Now the anti-tax, pro-small-government group wants to try to define Kerry as a "tax-and-spend liberal who is dangerous for the economic recovery and too liberal for the country," said Stephen Moore, the Club for Growth's president. That may seem like an ambitious goal for four staff members with a handful of part-time consultants and a donor list. In fact, the 5-year-old Club for Growth is among the most audacious of the independent groups that are gathering more cash and influence, now that federal laws restrict fund-raising by the national parties.

Liberal activists are setting up nonprofit, technically unaffiliated organizations such as Americans Coming Together and America Votes as a kind of "shadow party" to collect money and bolster the Democratic effort this year. But Club for Growth is no shadow for any party. In fact, some Republicans are annoyed at the club for helping to derail Dean, since they believe the former Vermont governor would be the easiest candidate for President Bush to beat.

Moore's response is that the ad, which capitalized on humor and cost a modest $75,000 for a few Iowa airings, made little difference. "Dean shot himself in the foot," he said. Democrats are hardly the club's only targets, however.

This year, the group plans its biggest campaign so far, a $1.75 million effort to help Republican Rep. Patrick Toomey challenge a fourth-term fellow Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, in next April's primary in Pennsylvania. The club has branded Specter a RINO -- Republican in name only -- who is not dedicated enough to cutting taxes and reducing spending. Unseating the senator will be a long shot, conceded Moore. "The odds are against you when you're taking on an incumbent," he said.

The effort has also upset the Bush administration, which has dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to raise money for Specter. But tweaking the Republican establishment is what the club is about. It took out ads comparing two Republican senators, George Voinovich of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine, to the president of France after the two slowed down passage of the president's tax cuts. Moderate Republicans are fighting back. The Republican Main Street Partnership raised $4.5 million last year and expects to collect $2 million more this year to defend its 65 congressional members.

Limited success

Club for Growth has never succeeded in defeating their members, said the partnership's executive director, Sarah Chamberlain Resnick. "And they won't be with Arlen Specter." Even so, she said the club is "doing a lot of damage to the Republican Party" by stirring up controversy in a swing state such as Pennsylvania in a presidential election year.

"It's like a wrecking ball for the Republican Party," she said. "They muck up the process." As it makes enemies, however, the Club for Growth is also making friends by donating generously to a few, carefully selected congressional candidates. The group picks about 20 conservatives, some of them long shots in their Republican primaries, and urges its members to write checks, which the club then bundles and sends to the candidates.

In Texas, for example, three Republicans are battling over the right to challenge Rep. Chet Edwards, the incumbent Democrat, in the newly drawn 17th District. State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth recently got a major boost when the club decided to back her for the Republican primary. Lawmakers remember such early help. Within hours of the release of the federal budget last week, Moore was on the phone to Capitol Hill.

"We're relying on you guys at the Study Committee to hold the line," he told one of his allies, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who was elected in 2000 and who has joined the conservative congressional caucus known as the Republican Study Committee.

A model for activism

Club for Growth has been a model for activism on the conservative side, said Derek Willis, who has studied the public filings of hundreds of independent political groups for the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. The club, which operates out of small back offices at a law firm, spends little on its operations and pours its money into high-profile ads and a few targeted races, especially in primaries, which other outside groups usually avoid.

"It's somewhat of an insurgent activity," Willis said. "One reason they've been so successful is that they hammer away at limited things and do a pretty good job of it. There's no hidden agenda. What you see is what you get." Moore, an economist and staff member for the libertarian Cato Institute, came up with the idea for the group and persuaded financier-philanthropist Richard Gilder and Thomas Rhodes, president of the National Review, to go along.

Since then, the group has grown from fewer than 2,000 members in 2001 to about 13,000, said Executive Director David Keating. It raised more than $7.5 million in 2003, according to reports filed to the IRS. The goal for this year is $15 million. Major contributors are drug company heir Daniel C. Searle, who contributed $1 million last year, and Gilder's firm, which provided nearly $800,000

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