What’s a #NeverTrump donor to do in a very-Trump world?
After pouring nearly $11 million into a months-long effort to halt the controversial billionaire’s march to the GOP nomination, the Club for Growth finds itself grappling with that question now.
The Club waded into a presidential primary for the first time in its history this year this year in order to stop Trump, and the results were dispiriting. Last week, still trying to make sense of it all, the group disseminated a memo designed to boost its donors’ morale and provide them with a strategy for the rest of the 2016 cycle. The memo, sent to the organization’s board of directors from Club president and former Indiana congressman David McIntosh, highlights the biggest challenge the group faces in the wake of Trump’s triumph: reframing the election “to give disillusioned Republicans a reason to go to the polls.”
Since its founding in 1999, the Club has been one of the mightiest fundraising forces on the right, and the fact that it feels the need to motivate both donors and voters to participate in down-ballot elections is an early sign of the ordeal many Republican House and Senate candidates may face both raising money and turning out voters with Trump at the top of the ticket.
The group has even planned a forthcoming public-relations campaign, “Save America — Save the Congress,” geared toward fundraising and turning out voters.
Trump looms over all of this in a way that demonstrates just how weird the 2016 election has become. The Club is telling its donors that conservatives must ensure both the House and Senate stay in Republican hands in part to act as a bulwark against the potential Republican president, whom McIntosh describes as “at worst, a liberal Democrat and, at best, ideologically confused.”
Trump “says everything is up for negotiation, so it is critical that the Club for Growth PACs work to elect strong negotiators in Congress who would pull him toward conservative limited-government positions,” the memo states.
The Club is effectively aligning itself with the Republican party’s #NeverTrump faction. Though McIntosh says many of his board members plan to vote for the real-estate mogul, his goal is to “make it a socially acceptable thing to skip president and vote down-ballot.”
McIntosh is well aware it’s an unorthodox stance. “It’s a little like the Club being given a choice between ‘Menu A’ and ‘Menu B’ and we say, ‘No, we’re going to choose menu C,’” he says. The Club’s position — that it’s okay not to vote for president, but showing up on election day to support conservative congressional candidates is paramount — will factor into the television ads the group puts out on behalf of the Senate candidates it’s supporting: endangered incumbents Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson, plus congressmen Ron DeSantis and John Fleming, running in crowded Republican primaries in Florida and Louisiana, respectively.
#share#As much as the Club is looking forward, it’s also looking back in an effort to understand its failure to prevent Trump from seizing the nomination. Ultimately, McIntosh and others point the finger elsewhere. “The fundamental problem,” the memo states, “is that the really significant Republican money stayed on the sidelines. If others had intervened before South Carolina and the southern and northern Super Tuesday states, it might have been possible to keep Trump from winning, and would have given one of the pro-growth candidates an opportunity to stop Trump earlier. This didn’t happen.”
It’s not too hard to figure out that the “really significant Republican money” McIntosh references belongs to the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and to casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, all of whom opted not to intervene in the GOP primary. The Kochs are likely to sit out the presidential race entirely, while Adelson has since endorsed Trump.
The Club and its top donors have made no secret of their disappointment that the Kochs, in particular, kept their wallets closed to anti-Trump forces, though board chairman Steve Stephens says he refuses to put the Kochs’ decision through the “retrospectoscope.”
#related#“I wish others had followed our lead in recognizing the Trump candidacy, that it was going to be as strong as it was, and had been willing to enter the fight earlier,” says Stephens says. “What I can say is that I think a more unified, concerted effort prior to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday primaries in the South would’ve made a difference. How much of a difference, I don’t know. . . . As far as the Club is concerned, I think we did yeoman’s work.”
McIntosh himself remains optimistic about the Club’s efforts going forward. He is quick to point out that some of his group’s most significant victories have been built on the ashes of its most painful defeats, including Scott Garrett’s merciless but unsuccessful primary challenge against the centrist Republican Marge Roukema, whose seat he captured in 2002, and Toomey’s 2004 primary loss to then-senator Arlen Specter.
“In the past when we didn’t succeed, we often came back and won the next time,” McIntosh says.
If Trump is successful in defeating Hillary Clinton, the Club for Growth will be back to do battle with him in 2020. And the record suggests he’ll have reason to be nervous.
— Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review.