Politics & Policy

Nearly a Decade into Their Epic Feud, Huckabee and the Club for Growth Prepare to Fight Another Round

If, as many suspect him to, Mike Huckabee announces a presidential bid in Hope, Arkansas, on May 5, he’ll enter the race with some unique advantages. But he’ll also be burdened by a furious rivalry with a conservative activist group likely to have a budget of tens of millions of dollars, a group he’s compared to “suicide bombers” and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan.

Personal charisma and a steady Fox News audience have already propelled Huckabee to the middle of a crowded pack in most polls, just under 8 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. If he were to ascend to the top of the heap, it would be a major defeat for the Club for Growth, the group with which the former Arkansas governor has a bitter feud stretching back nearly a decade. The Club says it’s prepared to devote more resources than ever before to preventing its nemesis from catching fire with voters.

“We’re probably going to be more active than we were in 2008 and 2012,” says the Club for Growth’s president, former Indiana representative David McIntosh. The club spent $17.9 million on federal elections in 2012 and nearly $7 million in 2008 — not quite at the level of the Koch Brothers, but still enough to buy a considerable amount of advertising in key states.

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“If he got the nomination and was president, he’d be terrible on economic conservative issues, and we’ve got to educate the voters about that through our affiliated PAC,’ McIntosh said. “If somebody like that starts to rise up again — I don’t anticipate anyone will — who has a terrible record on economic liberty, we will make that known.”

In a GOP full of rivalries and grudges, no ongoing fight between a potential candidate and a key conservative advocacy group burns hotter than the one between Huckabee and the Club for Growth. Once just a policy dispute over Huckabee’s record on taxes while governor, the argument is now intensely nasty, personal and public. Huckabee has compared the group to “suicide bombers,” and critics of his, like Senator Pat Toomey, to Hassan. The Club contends that Huckabee chose to personalize the fight, and accuses him of echoing liberals in his arguments.

In a GOP full of rivalries and grudges, no ongoing fight between a potential candidate and a key conservative advocacy group burns hotter than the one between Huckabee and the Club for Growth.

McIntosh doubts Huckabee will have much success this cycle, and envisions a better dilemma, where the Club is faced with a quintet of options much more aligned with the Club’s economic agenda.

The Club endorsed the Senate bids of the three candidates who have announced so far — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul — and issued largely positive “white papers” assessing their record on economic issues. They plan on compiling such dossiers for all the announced candidates.

Besides the three past Club favorites who announced, McIntosh said, “a lot of my members like Walker, some of them like Jeb Bush. I think those are the strong candidates out there who are capturing people’s imaginations. We’ll see who rises. I think the rest of them are going to be sort of afterthoughts.”

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The Club’s leadership is discussing whether to depart from its own historical precedent and endorse a presidential candidate in the primaries for the first time.

#related#The 2008 race featured a Club anti-endorsement, with the organization running ads against Huckabee in late 2007, which showed him declaring to the Arkansas State Legislature in 2003 that he was open to accepting a variety of hikes on tobacco, income, and sales taxes.

After the 2008 election, Leo Linbeck, Jr., a Houston businessman who helped launch the FairTax movement, attempted to mend fences between Huckabee and the Club, inviting both to a meeting in Washington, D.C. In Huckabee’s telling, it did not go well:

I left the meeting feeling as if I had wasted my time because it didn’t appear that CFG was driven by facts, but by [the] checkbooks of those who wanted to target someone for character assassination. . . . Groups like Club for Growth are basically pay for play. If you have a lot of money and want to destroy someone running for office, regardless of the reason, you can anonymously write a check to the Club and it will do the dirty work for you.

McIntosh rejects the notion that donors drive his organization’s criteria, and points to the policy-based white papers as evidence that the group’s standards are consistent.

In the years since, Huckabee and the Club for Growth have found themselves on opposite sides in several big GOP primary fights. In the 2012 GOP Senate primary in Texas, after the Club endorsed Ted Cruz, Huckabee endorsed Cruz’s opponent, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. That same cycle, in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary, Huckabee endorsed State Attorney General Jon Bruning; a few months later, the Club for Growth endorsed Nebraska state Treasurer Don Stenberg.

“I wish the Republicans were only guilty of peeing inside the tent,” Huckabee writes. “Sadly, some are intent to bring grenades, pull the pin, and toss them under the chair of another Republican.”

Huckabee’s anger at the group hasn’t dissipated in the intervening years. In the book he published in January, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, the former Arkansas governor devoted a whole chapter to his fight with the Club, entitled ‘Grenades in Our Tent.,’ in which he called the group “suicide bombers.”

“I wish the Republicans were only guilty of peeing inside the tent,” Huckabee writes. “Sadly, some are intent to bring grenades, pull the pin, and toss them under the chair of another Republican. If we would operate by [Roger Ailes’s] rules instead of allowing suicide bombers to determine our direction, we’d have no trouble winning elections at the local, state, and national levels.”

A few pages later, Huckabee denounced Toomey, and said some Republicans want to emulate Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan:

Pat Toomey, then a former Congressman from Pennsylvania, and currently a U.S. Senator, was the head of Club for Growth at the time.

Later, when Toomey joined with a Senate Democrat to pass some gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy and got pummeled by conservatives for “becoming a squish” on the Second Amendment, I wondered if he ever thought about the many broadsides he had leveled against other Republicans.

I heard him on TV lament how he was being misunderstood and how unfair it was to paint him as not supporting the Second Amendment. Forgive me if I was not moved to tears. “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” said Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 26, verse 52.

Some Republicans have failed to heed those critical words of warning, and instead wake up each morning and look for the sword. It’s the same as throwing a grenade in your own tent. I really don’t think Nidal Hassan is the role model the GOP wanted to emulate.

Toomey declined requests for comment in reaction to Huckabee’s characterization of him.

“Like liberals, he chooses to personalize it, when he can’t defend that record,” McIntosh says. “It’s the kind of attack a liberal would come up with. It’s so far from reality, I don’t think it will actually go far.”

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online.

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