For the Right, Election Night 2018 was more grim than grin. While the GOP kept the U.S. Senate, the loss of the House and state- and local-level downfalls across America were tough rocks to swallow.
But one campaign organization must have enjoyed a rollicking time watching the returns roll in. In fact, with 14 wins and three defeats, the Club for Growth’s congressional independent-expenditure effort boasted 82 percent bull’s-eyes. This far outpaced the independent-expenditure programs of other market-friendly super PACs last November, such as the (pro-Freedom Caucus) House Freedom Action’s 70 percent hit rate, the Koch-funded Seminar Network’s 47 percent positive record, and the “official” National Republican Congressional Committee, which saved 13 races and sank 25, equaling 34 percent success.
How did CFG — whose gatherings I have addressed numerous times — soar when so many pro-GOP operations sputtered?
“The Club’s PACs’ win/loss record is by far the best among all Republican groups because we have a rigorous race/candidate-vetting and endorsement process,” explains CFG president David McIntosh, himself a former GOP congressman from Indiana who was replaced in 2001 by a young broadcaster named Mike Pence. “Additionally, when Club for Growth PAC endorses a candidate, Club PACs overwhelm the opposition with targeted spending. In other words, we go all in.”
CFG also promotes contenders just as they hit the hustings.
“Unlike other groups, Club PACs engage very early on in races so that our dollars are spent more effectively and efficiently when campaigns usually don’t have the funds to be on air themselves,” McIntosh notes. “This gives Club for Growth PAC a tremendous advantage in framing the narrative of the race and defining the opposition before they can attempt to define our endorsed candidate. Our early, all-in model allows us to dominate races.”
Representative Chip Roy cherishes CFG’s confidence.
“The Club’s backing was instrumental, because I had only 90 days to come out on top of 17 other candidates, and then we had just over 70 days to win a run-off,” the Texas Republican tells me. “I almost certainly would not have won the primary given how crowded the field was without the support of the Club for Growth.”
The House freshman also applauds CFG’s process for picking true believers over party hacks. “They spend a lot of time vetting candidates and picking competent winners who are rooted in principle,” Roy observes. “I can tell you that despite knowing me and seeing me work in the past on conservative fights, they put me through the full interview process, and it is vigorous and effective.”
CFG also advanced fiscal conservatives by practicing fiscal conservatism. The Washington-based group’s overhead (what the Federal Election Commission calls “Other Federal Operating Expenditures”) as a share of spending was just 8.9 percent. While this slightly lagged behind the Senate Leadership Fund’s 7.25 percent, CFG’s internal thrift beat the NRCC’s 45.5 percent overhead or the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s 55.6 percent.
The word “overhead” might suggest lavish steak dinners, Caribbean staff retreats, and other luxuries. While few in the super-PAC class survive on Top Ramen and tap water, it’s important to remember that “overhead” often includes important and legitimate activities beyond rent, power bills, and office supplies. “Non-independent-expenditure spending involves such things as polling, research, and communications with our grassroots membership,” says Colby Bledsoe, political director of FreedomWorks for America. It scored 12 independent-expenditure races and dropped 12 — a .500 batting average — while devoting 25.7 percent to overhead.
How does CFG curb its expenses?
“It’s in the Club’s DNA,” says its chairman, Steve Stephens. “Our board’s focus is relentless — cost-effective and productive (winning) donor spending — because we’re donors, too.”
“Before the David McIntosh era,” Stephens adds, “the Club punched above its weight with innovations like bundling, our scorecard, our candidate-vetting/selection process, the invention of super PACs (David Keating’s SpeechNOW.org lawsuit). Now, the McIntosh team has raised the bar for itself with the best political mechanics I’ve seen.”
CFG’s rightist donors wielded enormous muscle: the election of 14 confirmed free-marketeers amid the failure of only three endorsees. CFG’s triumphant senators include the re-elected Ted Cruz of Texas plus freshmen Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Rick Scott of Florida. As Scott’s skin-tight gain shows, CFG does not bet solely on sure things. Also, it injected $1.5 million into Cruz’s race once former Democrat congressman Robert Francis O’Rourke’s threat proved formidable.
In the House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted nine of the 15 districts in which CFG battled. CFG prevailed in seven such match-ups, with Mark Harris’s victory in North Carolina’s Ninth District still awaiting certification. And CFG did all of this with 91 cents of each contributed dollar actually asking voters to embrace the Club’s candidates.
Regarding the Club for Growth’s future, David McIntosh dreams big league: “Our goal is to become the political arm for conservatives within the GOP.”
Michael Malarkey furnished research for this opinion piece.