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Growing Pains

The GOP purge.

FOR ALL INTENTS and purposes, the only national political story on August 8 was Ned Lamont's defeat of Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary. But all that Nedrenaline obscured another anti-incumbent surprise the very same night. In Michigan's Seventh District, Republican Representative Joe Schwarz was knocked off by a conservative primary challenger. It was an ominous sign of the national mood for sweaty-palmed Washington Republicans. But it was also significant for another reason: The Club for Growth had finally scalped its first incumbent. Founded in 1999 by a group of wealthy supply-siders, the Club has long annoyed the GOP establishment with its freelance efforts to replace weak-kneed moderates with purebred economic conservatives (the Club has little interest in social issues). In Michigan last month, it finally succeeded. The Club spent more than $1 million to help Tim Walberg, an evangelical minister who has pledged never to support a tax increase, to beat Schwarz, a sometime opponent of Bush's tax cuts, by a 53-47 margin. "Michigan Republican voters sent a clear message to Congress that they are tired of the big-spending, big-government policies that contributed so much to Joe Schwarz's downfall," the Club gloated in a press release afterward.

As the Michigan primary demonstrates, the Club for Growth is a conservative analog to the liberal blogs hell-bent on eliminating Lieberman. As in Connecticut, losing party control wasn't an issue in Michigan, where Democrats doubt they can mount a serious challenge against Walberg. But, as the Club moves on to its next big battle, it is finding that the stakes--and risks--of its strategy are much greater. The political world may be riveted by liberal ideologues trying to oust Joe Lieberman. But it's conservative ideologues, led by the Club for Growth, who may wind up delivering the U.S. Senate into Democratic hands.

SINCE ITS INCEPTION, the Club for Growth has been a stone in the shoe of Washington Republicans. Party leaders may share the Club's core ideology of maximum tax cuts and spending reductions, but they also recognize the reality of the electorate--namely that Republicans from moderate states and districts shouldn't commit political suicide in the name of ideology. So, when the Club began mounting primary challenges against Northeastern moderates like Sherwood Boehlert and Marge Roukema, it did so in opposition to congressional GOP leaders. ("We can't have this infighting between conservatives and moderates and maintain our majority," Tom DeLay grumbled to The Washington Post in 2000.) When the Club ran TV ads attacking moderate Republican senators who had been opposing a 2003 Bush tax cut, Karl Rove pronounced the move "stupid." And many Republicans were furious in 2004 when the Club spent $2.3 million in a bid to end Arlen Specter's 24-year Senate career. Its chosen candidate, right-wing Pennsylvania Representative Pat Toomey--who ripped Specter as a "dangerous liberal"--came within two points of succeeding, even though few Republicans believed Toomey could survive a general election.

After that race, Toomey assumed control of the Club. (He replaced its press-friendly founder, Steve Moore, over internal-management feuds, including whether Moore had spent enough on Toomey's campaign.) And now he's waging a redux of his Senate campaign in Rhode Island. In the crosshairs this time is the state's Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee. The genially eccentric Chafee, a liberal Republican in the old New England tradition, is being challenged by Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. Rhode Island might be one of the most Democratic states in the country, but, among its conservative Republican voters, Chafee has achieved Lieberman-like levels of infamy. The Club for Growth particularly hates Chafee for his repeated resistance to ever-larger tax cuts for the rich. It's no surprise, then, that Laffey--with the aid of nearly $1 million in club support--has been catching on. With the September 12 primary approaching, one recent poll showed Laffey and Chafee in a virtual dead heat.

Just as the Washington Democratic establishment rushed to defend Lieberman, so are Beltway Republicans battling to keep Chafee alive. Last year, top GOP officials like Rove and Elizabeth Dole tried, and failed, to keep Laffey from running. But their efforts only seemed to goad Laffey, a blustery populist who hosted a Limbaugh-esque talk-radio show until campaign laws forced him off the air. "Those guys down in Washington said I shouldn't run. They know I can't be controlled," he sneered last fall. The establishment hit back. In a remarkable act of intraparty hostility, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Laffey this summer, charging him with mailing a political flier at Cranston taxpayers' expense. Last fall, the NRSC also leaked to The Washington Times an oppo-research document about Laffey's tenure as mayor undercutting his signature issue. Its title: "The Laffey Tax Machine."

Why is the GOP so adamant about stopping Laffey? Because Republicans know that, although Laffey can win a Republican primary, he almost certainly can't beat his Democratic challenger, Sheldon Whitehouse, in a general election. Polls show Whitehouse crushing Laffey by more than 20 points, whereas Chafee runs about even with Whitehouse. And this brings us to the critical difference between the anti-Lieberman and the anti-Chafee campaigns. In Connecticut, there has never been a real chance that Lieberman's seat would fall into Republican hands. But a Club victory in Rhode Island would mean, as Moore puts it, "you're just handing the seat over to a Democrat." Toomey didn't respond to interview requests, but a statement at the Club's website calls the risk of Laffey losing in the general election overstated and "acceptable," adding that replacing Chafee with a Democrat "wouldn't be much of a loss ... as he would vote much the same."

But don't tell that to Republicans who know that the vote that really matters is the one for Senate majority leader next January that will decide party control of the chamber. They know that Democrats--thanks in part to George Allen's creative vocabulary--are now within striking range of winning the six seats they need to regain the Senate. "Their hair's on fire," says GOP lobbyist Scott Reed about Washington Republicans. "You have to give [the Club] credit--they scored out in Michigan. But we're talking about control of the U.S. Senate here." Democrats, however, don't mind it one bit. "If they succeed in their efforts against Chafee, they're going to save us a significant amount of money and time, because, in all likelihood, the seat won't be very competitive," says a Democratic Party strategist. "So, in some weird, twisted way, we're rooting for their success."

THOUGH IT MAY well help to facilitate a new Democratic Senate, for now the Club appears to pose little danger to the GOP's House majority. The Club has succeeded in boosting archconservatives--in Nebraska, Ohio, Colorado, and California--but, as in Michigan, Democrats are not competitive in those districts. Still, both parties are watching Idaho's First District, where the Club has spent more than $300,000 on behalf of State Representative Bill Sali. A Christian fundamentalist and home-schooler, Sali is widely known, even among Republicans, as an insufferable jerk. "A bully," according to one of his fellow conservative legislators. "Just an absolute idiot," the GOP state House speaker recently said. Mike Simpson, the sitting representative from the state's other congressional district, even threatened during one heated argument to throw Sali out a window. When Vice President Dick Cheney visited for a Sali fund-raiser, the scene was a like a birthday party for the class pariah; only three of Sali's 104 legislative colleagues showed. A group of anti-Sali Republican businessmen have gone so far as to endorse the Democrat in the race, apparently on the theory that it's better to sacrifice the seat to Democrats for two years than be stuck with a Republican they despise. Ordinarily, Democrats would consider an Idaho seat utterly hopeless. But, one party operative says, they're keeping an eye on the race, "only because [Sali]'s in it."

Still, Idaho being Idaho, chances are good that Sali will win. So, even if the Club for Growth succeeds in costing the Republican Party its Senate majority in Rhode Island, it can still take credit for one of the most obnoxious new additions to the House. Republicans can only hope that the crusading left turns out to be just as strategically brilliant.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 2006 issue of the magazine.