Out to Purge GOP, Wealthy Donors Demand More Enthusiasm from Rhode Island Challenger

The Club for Growth channels millions of dollars into elections, backing candidates who embrace their hard-line anti-tax, anti-government platform, and the group specializes in bitter primary races against supposedly “liberal” Republicans. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) narrowly survived such a primary challenge in 2004, and last month incumbent Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Michigan) fell to a candidate bolstered by $500,000 in Club spending on ads and $600,000 in direct contributions. But the Club-backed candidate in the primary for an open congressional seat in Nevada fell short, despite more than $1 million in Club money.

The Club claims a 9 to 2 record in primaries so far this year, but the real prize is Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), whom the group has been attacking for months as a tax-hiker and a liberal. The Club has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chafee’s opponent, Stephen Laffey, and at least one poll shows Laffey far ahead among Rhode Island’s tiny Republican electorate. But another poll says the opposite, and the Club is getting worried. Speaking of the former poll, the Club for Growth PAC’s David Keating writes:

It could be that the debates last week … have led to a collapse in support for Chafee. On the other hand, there could be something wrong in the poll. We saw a similar out-of-the-box poll in the Nevada 2 congressional race that showed a huge lead for a candidate our PAC supported. Yet she wound up losing by 421 votes. …

Even before the poll, it looks to us like Laffey thinks, and is acting like, he is going to win. We think he is being a little too confident. Yesterday’s anti-Laffey TV spots outnumbered Laffey’s promotional spots by 108 to 27.

Then we read Laffey still has over $600,000 in the bank.

But looking at the amount of money Laffey is spending on TV makes us wonder, is he ever going to spend the money? Why is he letting Chafee and the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] beat him to a pulp without an effective response?

Keating promises the Club will continue to spend money on the primary, but makes it clear that the wealthy financiers and executives who dominate the Club for Growth membership expect Laffey to run his campaign differently:

Laffey should put everything he has to win in the primary race in these last two weeks. We certainly don’t want to have to explain to our members why Laffey lost by a fraction, or worse by 421 votes, yet didn’t spend all of the money. … [W]e hope that Laffey is going to spend every last dime he’s raised to ensure his primary victory.

The Club’s donations and expenditures have helped lift Laffey’s primary run out of anti-incumbent irrelevance, but polls show Laffey would most likely lose in the general election, where Chafee has a fighting chance to retain the seat for Republicans. And in fact, the Club is unperturbed by that scenario. Club President Pat Toomey (who ran against Specter in 2004) said that losing the seat to a Democrat “wouldn’t be much of a loss … as he would vote much the same.” (The National Republican Senatorial Committee still counts on Chafee for many votes – especially the vote for majority leader – which is why they are fighting back hard in the Rhode Island primary.)

So it’s hard to blame Laffey for holding back some campaign cash, if that’s what he’s doing. After the primary, he may find the Club for Growth much less interested in giving him money for a losing general election run. By that time, the Club’s project of “purging” elected officials who don’t fall into line will have succeeded in sending a message to the remaining Republicans – get with the agenda, or you could be next.