Club for Growth doesn't regret taking on GOP Rep. Mike Simpson in Idaho

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With the launch of its "Primary My Congressman" website early last year, the conservative Club for Growth announced it would target nine Republican members of Congress in an effort to weed out "liberal Republicans" from the party.

"Big-government liberals inhabit the Democratic Party, but they are far too common within the Republican Party as well," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said at the time.

But, more than one year and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the project has fallen flat in this midterm election cycle. The Club for Growth endorsed only one challenger to its list of targeted incumbents: Bryan Smith, who lost by a wide margin in a Republican primary Tuesday to Rep. Mike Simpson, of Idaho.

Barney Keller, a Club for Growth spokesman, stressed to the Washington Examiner on Tuesday that Simpson's race was but one element of the group's long-term strategy to push congressional Republicans more to the right on fiscal and business issues. "This is not a war that's going to be won [Tuesday] in Idaho," Keller said.

He added that the Club for Growth has no regrets about supporting Smith and emphasized that the group remains eager to mount such challengers to Republicans in the future. "We intend to keep doing it every cycle until there's a pro-growth Congress," Keller said.

In future election cycles, however, the Club for Growth and disruptive outside groups in its mold will need to contend with the precedent set by the so-called Republican "establishment" in the race between Simpson and Smith — of spending heavily to beat back challenges to incumbents, even in non-battleground districts.

The Club for Growth spent roughly $500,000 in its bid to defeat Simpson, a stunning sum for a safely Republican House seat. But moderate Republican groups rallied to Simpson's defense, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent at least $200,000 attacking Smith and another $525,000 to boost Simpson.

For Simpson's supporters, the goal was to present the congressman, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, as the conservative candidate in the race, such as in a Chamber of Commerce television advertisement starring Mitt Romney.

"You can take it from me: The conservative choice for Congress is Mike Simpson," Romney said in the ad.

The push worked: By the end of April, the Club for Growth had pulled its television ads in Idaho, effectively ceding the race to Simpson.

In November, Keller told the Wall Street Journal that defeating Simpson "will send a shiver down the spine of the political establishment." But, for this election cycle at least, the Republican Party won't be losing any sleep.

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner