Just How Many “Secretive Clubs” Does The Right Have?

It is no secret that the GOP’s right-wing base is unenthusiastic about the current crop of presidential frontrunners.  As the New York Times reported last month:

A group of influential Christian conservatives and their allies emerged from a private meeting at a Florida resort this month dissatisfied with the Republican presidential field and uncertain where to turn.

The event was a meeting of the Council for National Policy, a secretive club whose few hundred members include Dr. James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Although little known outside the conservative movement, the council has become a pivotal stop for Republican presidential primary hopefuls, including George W. Bush on the eve of his 1999 primary campaign.

But in a stark shift from the group’s influence under President Bush, the group risks relegation to the margins. Many of the conservatives who attended the event, held at the beginning of the month at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla., said they were dismayed at the absence of a champion to carry their banner in the next election.

Now, the Boston Globe is reporting that another secretive right-wing political organization is going beyond the Council for National Policy’s mere complaining and is actively interviewing candidates in order to determine which nominee meets its criteria:

Leaders of a secretive coalition that includes some of the most influential social conservatives in the nation are interviewing presidential candidates in hopes of flexing political muscle and reframing the Republican primaries in 2008.

Over the past few months, members of the executive committee of the so-called Arlington Group have questioned several declared and potential White House hopefuls with the intention of settling on a single candidate, according to Arlington Group members and Republican operatives familiar with the discussions.

Leaders of the group have interviewed Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, US Representative Duncan Hunter of California, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hasn’t entered the race but may later this year. It’s not clear which other candidates have been or will be interviewed. The group has not yet questioned Romney, Senator John McCain of Arizona, or former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to those campaigns.

While the Arlington Group cannot endorse candidates itself, its high-profile and influential members certainly can:

Because the Arlington Group is made up of many nonprofit organizations and ministries — which, by law, cannot officially advocate for political candidates — the coalition is not expected to explicitly endorse anyone. Instead, according to members of the group and two Republicans close to it, the conservative leaders hope to coalesce around one candidate that prominent members such as James Dobson, who heads Colorado-based Focus on the Family, could endorse individually. Dobson, for example, is free to say as a private citizen that he supports a certain candidate, a personal endorsement sure to influence many of his followers.

Shannon Royce, the Arlington Group’s executive director, said in an e-mail that the group “does not, cannot, and will not be doing interviews of presidential candidates. As in previous presidential campaigns, some principals, acting in their private capacities, are having discussions with potential presidential candidates.” She declined to comment further.

But the lines are blurry. In addition to the fact that members of the Arlington Group’s executive committee are leading the interviews, Royce, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe, has coordinated candidate visits and sent the campaigns an issues questionnaire to fill out. The questionnaire asks candidates their views on, among other topics, a proposed federal same-sex marriage ban, judicial appointments, the budget, and publicly funded sex-education programs. In addition, candidate interviews have been held at the Washington headquarters of the Family Research Council, an influential Christian organization that hosts Arlington Group staff members and meetings.

The Right is clearly looking for a candidate that it can coalesce around in order to shape the GOP primary and, more importantly, maintain its political influence.  

Some of The Arlington Group’s members are reportedly waiting until the candidates release their first-quarter fund-raising figures and demonstrate that they can, in the words of Tony Perkins, “put together an organization and go the distance and win the race.”  But others appear to see themselves as kingmakers, with one noting that “if we do our job” and choose a candidate, that candidate will immediately benefit in terms of fund-raising, making the need for money a “secondary factor.”