One of the many banes of John Boehner’s speakership is an unassuming former Republican congressman from Indiana named Chris Chocola.
Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, has become an influential congressional disciplinarian, but his hard-line positions have earned insiders’ scorn.
“He meddles in everything,” complains a Republican aide.
In recent weeks, the Club opposed Boehner’s “Plan B” during the fiscal-cliff negotiations and the Senate-crafted compromise that ultimately passed the House with the help of Democratic votes. It also opposed the Hurricane Sandy relief package and pressured Boehner to prepare a budget that balances in a decade.
“The Club has muscled their way to the table,” says Brendan Quinn, a longtime Republican strategist. “You can’t ignore them.”
But Republican leaders are doing their best to do just that, Chocola says, in an interview at National Review’s Washington office. “The last time Boehner and I spoke was about a year ago when we were on the same plane,” he says. “There’s no relationship.”
“They probably think we’re a pain in the ass,” he says, grinning.
Still, even though GOP grandees don’t applaud his tactics, Chocola thinks Boehner and company are nervous every time the Club sends out a “key vote alert” to its members.
“They know we score their votes and may get involved in a primary against them,” he says. “In politics, it doesn’t matter what you say, but what you’ll do.”
As Congress nears yet another debt-limit impasse and a potential government shutdown over federal funding, Chocola says he will continue to be a thorn in the leadership’s side. If Boehner doesn’t exact concessions, the Club will happily slam him.
If Boehner is “not willing to walk away from the negotiation, then he shouldn’t bother showing up,” Chocola warns. “If you can’t find a way to get us off of the path toward more debt and more spending, then shut it down.”
The role of Republican instigator isn’t a natural one for Chocola, a soft-spoken attorney from the suburbs of South Bend, Ind. He served in the House for two terms (2003–7) and was known mostly as a friendly but low-profile fiscal hawk.
It was only after Chocola lost his seat in 2006 that he began to consider leaving electoral politics to become a power broker. After Pat Toomey, now a Pennsylvania senator, left his post as Club president in 2009, Chocola was tapped as his replacement.
Conservative activists have frequently cheered Chocola during his tenure, but top Republican staffers on Capitol Hill say the group is often unrealistic and nasty.
“They’re big on the campaign trail, but in the House, all they do is send press releases and go on TV,” says a source close to the House leadership. “A lot of people think Chocola is trying too hard.”
When pressed about his unpopularity, Chocola shrugs. He says his donors aren’t worried about whether Boehner and his allies are supportive. “Our members want to see pro-growth policy implemented and pro-growth politicians elected,” he says.
For the past three years, the Club has been instrumental in electing several prominent conservatives to the Senate, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, and Mike Lee. In the House, they’ve backed the candidacies of many rising conservatives.
Chocola plans to participate in a slew of primaries across the country during the 2014 cycle, and he’s already working against moderate Republicans in a handful of states. But until those races heat up, he’ll keep his eye on his former House colleagues.
Chocola’s Beltway presence has made the Club one of the most feared conservative forces in the Republican cloakroom, alongside Heritage Action, Americans for Tax Reform, and Americans for Prosperity, all of which score votes.
But the Club’s maneuvers have led to occasional breaks with the capital’s other conservative groups. During the latest debt-limit debate, for example, the Club blessed a three-month extension and didn’t encourage a federal default.
Chocola says the Club’s cover for the Boehner-backed extension signals its political influence, not ideological malleability. When Chocola has the opportunity to huddle with conservatives to shape the party’s strategy, he will collaborate.
Chocola says he worked directly with members of the Republican Study Committee, such as Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, to push Boehner and budget chairman Paul Ryan to promise a ten-year balanced budget in exchange for the short extension.
“We’re talking to our guys all of the time,” Chocola says. “We’re not talking to leadership, but we’re talking to a lot of people who make things happen.”
“These friends, they’ll only see me at night, since they don’t want to get in trouble,” he chuckles. “But we’re coordinating our efforts.”
Chocola, a former backbencher, is now their champion.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.