The Outside Groups’ Elder Statesman: Chocola on Primaries, SCF, and McConnell

by Jonathan Strong

With the Republican feud over the role of the “outside groups” continuing to simmer, one of the interesting developments has been the elevation of the Club For Growth, once a scourge of the establishment, into a supposed model of restraint. Allies to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in particular have said the Club is more responsible than Senate Conservatives Fund, a group backing McConnell’s primary challenger in Kentucky. The Club also withheld its criticism of the Ryan–Murray budget deal until after the text of the legislation was publicly released, prompting some to draw a contrast between the Club and groups that issued statements opposing the deal only after its outline had leaked in the press.

I spoke to Club for Growth president Chris Chocola recently. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview:

National Review online: What do you make of Speaker Boehner’s tough words for the conservative outside groups during the debate over the Ryan–​Murray bill?

Chris Chocola: I don’t take it personally. He’s got a tough job, I’m sure he’s frustrated. We just continue to do what we do. I just think that the frustration that they have, they’ve got a lot of friction in their caucus. Which I think is a good thing. The way I describe it, there are enough Republicans that have been elected in the last couple of election cycles that ran saying we’re on a road to fiscal ruin and we’re just not going to do that anymore. If you’re on a road that you don’t want to be on, you’ve got to apply the brakes. And when you apply the brakes, friction is created. The friction’s good. I’d much rather have the friction than a smooth ride to fiscal disaster. So he’s had a lot of difficult times over the last couple of years with his own conference. People can blame the outside groups if they want, but the good news is, some folks ran on a serious commitment to fiscal responsibility and limited government. So that’s good.

NRO: The Club didn’t support the deal, but how bad was it, really? Does it reflect poorly on Paul Ryan?

CC: I’m not going to bash or defend Ryan on it. I’m sure if he was left to his own devices to do a deal it wouldn’t be that one. But the reason he couldn’t do the one that he would have done is because he didn’t have enough Republican votes to do it. He just simply didn’t have enough Republicans that said they would keep the sequester. That’s always the problem. That’s what I learned when I was in Congress. That’s what has changed my life and why I do what I do, is the realization that it’s Republicans that don’t do what they say they’re going to do when they ask for people’s votes. So whatever the number would have been, 40, 50, defense hawks and appropriators who said they weren’t going to keep the budget caps under the sequester — it’s the Republicans that are the problem, not the Democrats.

They always say, well, we don’t have the majority. Well, you did here. And all you had to do was pass a clean CR and send it to Harry Reid and see what he did with it. The Budget Control Act was bipartisan and those that supported it now want to get rid of it. And the groups that were against it are now for it.

Every time the Republicans say they’re going to spend less they don’t. If any of your readers believe that Congress will spend less in ten years while they spend more now, then they’re wrong. I can’t believe anyone actually believes that they’re going to do the hard work in ten years from now or eight years from now that they’re not willing to do now. You’re going to have maybe two different presidents by then? And you’re going to have four congressional elections by then? Half of ’em won’t even be there.

There’s just nothing in history that would give confidence that they’ll live up to the budget deal that they made, that it would truly be deficit-reducing or even deficit-neutral.

NRO: Do you think Boehner’s decision to go head-to-head with the outside groups makes it more likely someone from the House conference would try to challenge his leadership down the road?

CC: Oh, I don’t know. You know, we don’t really kind of ponder leadership races that much, because we figure if we do our job through our PAC they’ll elect one of their own. It’s up to them, it’s up to the conference to elect who they want to be their leaders and they get to decide whether they stay or go. It’s inside baseball that we don’t really have much input on. But if we elect enough of our guys, they’ll take care of it.

NRO: The McConnell–​Bevin race has become of a focal point for the role of the outside groups, with a lot of criticism directed at Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund. How has the Club viewed the race so far?

CC: Whenever we get in a race, a lot of things have to be present. There has to be a meaningful difference between the candidates, there has to be a plausible pathway to success – the challenger has to be clearly better. The challenger has to certainly not be the favorite or be a foregone conclusion, but there has to be a path that we can identify that they could win. So those, all of the elements that we look for aren’t evident yet. They may not become evident in Kentucky. So we’ve got some races that we’re very focused on right now, places like Arkansas, Mississippi, Idaho-2 with Brian Smith and Mike Simpson. We’ve endorsed Amash — the establishment is trying to make an example of Amash. Those are races we’re very focused on and they’re very critical to use for various reasons.

Bevin’s interesting. He’s unproven. He doesn’t have a record. So it’s hard to evaluate, you know, concretely, how he would serve. He talks a good game. I’m not defending McConnell because we always have our suspicions of leadership. But he’s like an 84 on our scorecard. He’s not a 68.

Leaders have the taint of leadership. They have to do their job, which is herd cats. I’m not defending McConnell. But as I understand he was very supportive of the sequester: If it was up to him they would have kept it, he thought that was important to keep. McConnell isn’t Thad Cochran’s record or even Dick Lugar’s record or Mike Simpson’s record. And so the relative difference between Bevin and McConnell isn’t clear just because Bevin hasn’t served and McConnell’s — he’s well above 80.

We also look at the general. We don’t ignore the general election. You’ve got a competitive general election there, it appears, so not only is that part of the pathway to success but it’s also a matter of dollars and sense. How much is it going to cost? If you win the primary, how much is it going to cost you to get across the finish line? That would be, I think, a very expensive endeavor. It’s not clear that we have a constructive role to play there at this point. But you know politics, it’s all very dynamic. There’s some ways to go here. Kentucky does not escape our discussions but we haven’t concluded there’s a constructive role to play there.

NRO: It’s funny to me that McConnell allies now hold up the Club as a model of responsibility and say it has been much more constructive than SCF and other groups. I can remember many instances in which Republicans seethed about the Club’s involvement in races. What do you make of that?

CC: We were kind of lonely actors for a while so we were the only ones to bash. There have emerged groups that kind of do what we do to some extent.

The Senate Conservatives Fund? DeMint, when he was there, he wouldn’t really get involved in primaries. He wouldn’t go negative. He wouldn’t do any negative advertising. Without him there now, Hoskins has a kind of broader menu of options that he can embrace — and he is. I like to tell people we’re similar to some of these other groups but we’re not the same.

We have no real criticism of the other groups. We work closely with SCF on a lot of occasions. We worked closely with Heritage Action, although they don’t have a 527. So we’re friendly with them, we respect what they do. But we don’t all do the same thing. We’ve had a process in place for a long time, it predates me, so we have a method. I always say the key to the effectiveness of the Club is we have an uncompromising adherence to our mission and we have a proven ability to impact the outcome of elections. So we stick with our model and it’s served us well. We’re risk-takers. Cruz was at like 3 percent when we endorsed him in a Republican primary poll. But we look for certain things, and if they’re not there, we kind of have the discipline to resist.

NRO: What did you think of RSC Chairman Steve Scalise firing top aide Paul Teller?

CC: Paul Teller was there when I was in Congress and I was a member of RSC. Paul Teller’s a great American. And a true believer. I don’t pretend to know the inside story of it. But, there’s some of that friction. The RSC has a lot of members that I wouldn’t identify as conservatives. Maybe the nature of the RSC has changed a bit. And maybe they didn’t all appreciate Teller’s consistent adherence to conservative policy. I’m sure he will find a very constructive role where he can continue to contribute and be a great American.

NRO: Do you think Scalise is doing a good job as RSC chairman?

CC: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really know him. The last three or four of them, I’ve known them all pretty well. So I don’t know that I can really give a good judgment of that. I mean, I’ve met him, but I don’t really know him very well.

NRO: How’s the race in Idaho’s second district going, where the Club backed a primary challenger to one of Boehner’s top allies, Mike Simpson? Has Simpson tried to move to the right?

NRO: Mike Simpson’s Mike Simpson. Give him credit. There is a ripple effect to what we do many times. Senator Orrin Hatch is the one that’s obvious. As soon as Bennet lost, he was Mr. Tea Party. He voted to the right of DeMint. Simpson, I don’t think he’s changed his behavior. It doesn’t really matter if he did. He’s got a very established record and pattern of voting behavior. So I’m not sure it would matter if he tried.