Seven hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough to win the race that would have been the Club for Growth’s signature victory in Arizona.
The fiscally conservative anti-tax organization endorsed three candidates in Arizona’s Republican primaries, and two of those candidates won on Aug. 28. Congressman Jeff Flake throttled primary challenger Wil Cardon, while former Congressman Matt Salmon ensured a return to the U.S. House of Representatives with a victory over Kirk Adams.
But in Arizona’s 4th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar defeated the club-backed Sen. Ron Gould, despite spending about $700,000 targeting the congressman for his vote to increase the federal debt ceiling and other issues. Gosar won handily, taking 51 percent of the vote and dispatching Gould by nearly 15 points.
Though the Club for Growth won two of its three races in Arizona, some of the group’s critics said its failure to elect Gould, a conservative firebrand from Lake Havasu City, was far more significant than its wins in the Flake and Salmon races.
Gosar has a relatively low rating on the club’s scorecard in general – by far the lowest among Arizona Republicans – and the debt ceiling vote was a key issue for the organization. Gould, meanwhile, is regarded by many as the most conservative member of the Legislature, and at times has been a lone dissenting vote even against his own party when he felt his colleagues strayed from conservative principles.
Gosar was the only Republican in Arizona’s congressional delegation to vote for the August 2011 agreement to raise the nation’s debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion, just before the U.S. was to default on its debts. The deal also included $2.4 trillion in spending cuts.
Republican lobbyist Kurt Davis noted that Flake beat Cardon, a wealthy Mesa businessman, by 48 points, and said Flake would’ve won handily without the $1 million that the club spent in the race. And the club didn’t run independent expenditure to support Salmon against Adams, a former Arizona House speaker.
CD4, however, was a “massive defeat,” Davis said.
“They doubled down in CD4 and they escalated their involvement to absolutely one of their top 10 races in the country. And they got hammered,” said Davis, of the firm FirstStrategic.
While Flake and Salmon had long been viewed as frontrunners in their races, Gould was an underdog from day one. But come-from-behind upsets have been the club’s trademark this year.
In May, Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated six-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, a stunning victory aided by nearly $1.5 million in advertising by the Club for Growth, which also bundled about $330,000 for Mourdock. And in late July, the club-backed Ted Cruz defeated establishment favorite David Dewhurst in the GOP primary runoff for Texas’ open U.S. Senate seat, a race that saw $5.5 million club spending.
Barrett Marson, a consultant for Gosar, boasted that CD4 was one of the club’s most expensive, but Gosar still won big.
“Obviously it took issue with one vote that Congressman Gosar made, and that one vote meant they should spend an unprecedented amount of money in Arizona. And the money did virtually nothing to move the needle,” Marson said. “They spent directly about $700,000 and the person that they … and he still received more than 50 percent of the votes.”
But even though Gould lost – and by a wide margin, at that – some say the club still made its point. GOP consultant Brian Murray, of the Summit Consulting Group, said other congressional Republicans will take note of races like Gosar’s, and some will take care to avoid the club’s wrath.
“Just because Gould didn’t pull off the victory doesn’t mean that the message wasn’t clearly sent to lots of members,” Murray said. “I don’t know what member of Congress wouldn’t sit up and say, ‘Gee, I don’t want 700 grand in outside spending spent against me from guys who are supposed to be on my side.’ I think that’s definitely inside-the-beltway kind of stuff that will resonate.”
Despite Gould’s loss, Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said the organization views its involvement in Arizona as a success.
“We’re always disappointed when a candidate with such sterling credentials as Ron Gould loses in a primary, but we’re glad that we made the effort. Ron Gould is a champion of economic freedom and club members were happy to support his candidacy,” Keller said.
Keller said the club’s decisions on which candidates to support is based solely on free-market policies. It opposed Lugar because it viewed him as an “establishment RINO” – Republican in name only – and opposed Dewhurst because of his history of supporting tax increases. Gosar was targeted for his vote to increase the debt ceiling, a major issue for the club.
“We don’t back people because we think they’re going to win. We back them because we think they’ll vote for good policy,” Keller said. “And that means we back underdogs, from time to time. In fact, most of our candidates are underdogs, or don’t start out with establishment support.”
While Flake, who has a 100 percent rating with the Club for Growth, trounced Cardon by 48 points, Keller emphasized that the club doesn’t spend money in races unless it feels it’s necessary. He said the club stopped spending during the last month of the campaign, when Cardon mostly ended his massive advertising campaign.
Keller also noted that the club bundled about $1 million in contributions for Flake, who faced a wealthy self-funder, and bundled about $100,000 for Salmon.
Republican consultant Constantin Querard said the club’s help may have done more than it appears for Salmon, who racked up a strong early lead in early balloting while Adams made a strong showing on Election Day.
“All that early money, all the early momentum, all that stuff, it contributes to a sense of inevitability, which obviously worked in Salmon’s favor. They made a positive difference for Salmon,” he said.
However, some questioned the club’s decision-making in where and how it gets involved in certain races. The club didn’t endorse in Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, but it threw its weight around in the race earlier in the year. It demanded that U.S. House Speaker John Boehner give Congressman David Schweikert a contribution from the House leadership PAC to make up for a contribution to his primary opponent, Congressman Ben Quayle. The club insisted that House leadership stay out of the race, and threatened to get involved on Schweikert’s behalf if it did.
After Schweikert defeated Quayle on Election Night, the Club for Growth issued a press release congratulating Schweikert and saying that House leadership did the right thing by not getting involved.
The club had a longstanding relationship with Schweikert and his consultant. But Quayle actually had a higher rating on the club’s congressional scorecard.
Lobbyist Jay Heiler, who worked on Quayle’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns, had harsh words for the club after the election.
“The Club for Growth has an important mission which I support, but its present leadership appears to have joined the expansive category of people that have more money than brains,” Heiler said.
The club’s attacks against its candidates’ opponents were vicious at times, and some took parting shots at the group. Cardon, whom the club called a “liberal imposter” in its television ads, called the club a “deceitful, lying, terrible group.”
Keller acknowledged that the club takes its share of criticism, but said it mostly comes from candidates it opposes or from their supporters. Murray agreed with his assessment.
“If they’re for you, you love them. And if they’re against you, you don’t,” Murray said.