Politics & Government

New sheriff in Texas: The Club for Growth

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) speaks at the winter meeting of the free market Club for Growth winter economic conference at the Breakers Hotel on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Palm Beach, Fla.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) speaks at the winter meeting of the free market Club for Growth winter economic conference at the Breakers Hotel on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Palm Beach, Fla. AP Photo

The Club for Growth, once the hero of long-shot Republicans challenging better-funded opponents, is now the political heavyweight in Texas’s GOP races.

Of the Club’s endorsed Texas House candidates vying in runoffs Tuesday, Michael Cloud in the 27th district, Ron Wright in the 6th district and Chip Roy in the 21st district were declared winners. Bunni Pounds lost to Lance Gooden in the 5th district early Wednesday morning. A fifth Club candidate, Van Taylor, won the GOP nomination in the 3rd district in the March primary.

Those candidates have the potential to massively shift Texas’s Washington representation to the right, replacing more pragmatic Republicans who are retiring with candidates who support the Club’s hardline approach to shrinking the government and cutting taxes and spending.

“[There is] a genuine disagreement about the vision for the Republican Party,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in an interview with the Star-Telegram Tuesday night. “I think what happens in Texas… will give us a good indication as to which way the party is going to go in other parts of the country.”

Tuesday’s results also mark another significant step in the state’s evolving GOP power grid — from campaigns dominated by powerful business interests to ideological hardliners funded by a wealthy few.

The Club spent big money promoting its chosen candidates in crowded primaries in open, Republican-leaning districts. It did so virtually uncontested by national business-backed groups that are frustrated with many of the Club’s candidates in Washington.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is currently at odds with conservatives on Capitol Hill over the lawmakers’ opposition to an immigration overhaul the business community desperately wants. But that group didn’t spend any money in Texas GOP primaries, and is focused on races in other states.

The Texas Association of Business is raising money to revive its political activity in both state and federal races, but this year had just a fraction of the Club’s money. It endorsed Gooden, plus two candidates who lost in runoffs Tuesday night.

Even among the Club’s ideological allies in Texas, the group’s influence is raising some alarm.

Each of its candidate should hold their seats easily in November — and potentially years to come — in deep red districts.

“The plan of limited government, cutting taxes and cutting spending, it’s a good thing,” said Bill Carson, a Navarro County Republican who helped plan candidates forums in the race to replace retiring Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. “But [the Club for Growth] seems like they’ve shifted from grassroots to massive donors who are running the show.”

At the state level, a network of groups funded by a few Texas oil donors has spent millions backing candidates who buck the business community in favor of a socially conservative agenda.

This year federal candidates vowing independence from the party establishment also enjoyed a financial advantages in their races — thanks to the Club, which gets the majority of its money from one major donor.

Illinois businessman Richard Uihlein contributed $5 million of the $8.9 million the Club’s super PAC had raised at the end of April. Of the PAC’s large-dollar contributors that it must disclose, 27 out of 275 live in Texas.

“There’s a lot of Texas money in these races that people say is — I don’t know if I’d go this far — but buying these seats,” said Carson, who supported a different candidate in the race to replace Barton.

McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana, contended that lawmakers in Washington are constantly barraged with requests for favors from lobbyists who give to their campaigns. The Club’s money, he said, helps them maintain independence.

“They hear it nonstop, and it takes a lot of courage to say ‘That’s not what I promised people in Texas I’d do,’” said McIntosh.

The Club spent millions in helping Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wage a long-shot Senate bid against fellow Republican and party favorite David Dewhurst in 2012. It also spent millions opposing then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, before supporting him in the general election.

This year the group is focused on lower-cost races in Republican-leaning districts with no incumbent. Five of its 11 endorsed Congressional candidates are in Texas.

To win the Club’s backing, candidates must trek to its D.C. office and undergo a rigorous interview process. McIntosh said at least 20 Texas candidates had come through the Club’s doors this election cycle.

The endorsement comes with some alluring perks: Campaign cash from the group’s national donor base, plus potential for advertising help from its super PAC, which reported about $9 million on hand at the end of April.

In one Corpus Christi race this year, both GOP runoff contestants vied for the Club’s endorsement, with the unsuccessful candidate later railing against the group’s influence. The comments were made in an interview with the Victoria Advocate.

Wright, who is running to represent a North Texas district, previously held nonpartisan offices. He spent a decade working for Barton, who has a lifetime score of 79 percent with the Club.

In Congress., Wright plans to join the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

He endorsed the Club’s tough approach to government spending in an interview with the Star-Telegram this month, calling Congress’s most recent government funding bill a “monstrosity.”

“I would have voted against it, it drove us deeper into debt,” said Wright, who served as Barton’s chief of staff on Capitol Hill. “When Congress does things like the omnibus (spending) bill, it’s so that huge nobody knows what’s in it when they vote on it. It’s bad for the country to govern that way.”

Key to the Club’s influence in Washington is a scorecard, which grades lawmakers based on their votes on its top priorities. It urged lawmakers to oppose the 2018 spending bill — which passed without the support of 90 House Republicans.

It also pressured allies last week to reject a GOP-authored farm bill that it said included too many subsidies. To the dismay of House Republican leaders, that bill failed on the House floor, in large part because conservatives voted no..

The prospect of adding to that conservative coalition frightens some Republicans, who say that Texas needs the federal funding.

In an op-ed decrying the Club’s influence in the race to replace Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, Richard Bowers, who chaired the Corpus Christi Economic Development Corporation warned the group’s hardline approach could hurt federal funding for local projects, such as an expansion of the Ship Channel.

Jerry Valdez, director of Texas Association of Business’s political action committee, said his group had long relied on Republicans to champion pro-business policies in both Washington and Austin. That calculus has changed in recent years, he said, and Republicans pursuing other agendas shouldn’t count on business’s support.

In a statement on the PAC’s successful candidate in the 5th district Wednesday morning, Valdez praised voters for bucking the “secretive” Club for Growth.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch