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Club for Growth looking for impact in congressional races

A little-known dentist from rural North Carolina hopes to become the latest Republican congressional nominee to charge from behind and, with the help of a powerful Washington backer, upset a favored GOP pick.

Congressional candidate Scott Keadle of Iredell County, N.C., has become a darling of national conservative groups after being anointed by the Club for Growth, a powerful conservative network seeking to overhaul the Republican Party.

While the tea party has gained more notoriety in recent years, the Club for Growth has been the heavyweight in the electoral ring.

Its targets usually are fellow Republicans.

The Club for Growth, a free market advocacy group, shocked many in Washington this month when it helped defeat six-term incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. According to the Federal Election Commission, the Club for Growth dropped more than $1.5 million into ads against Lugar, who was defeated by State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who had run for office numerous times.

Keadle, who also has previously run for Congress, is looking to follow a similar game plan as he campaigns for a July 17 runoff race against the apparent GOP favorite, Richard Hudson, a former congressional chief of staffer and aide to then-Rep. Robin Hayes. (Hayes now is North Carolina’s state Republican chairman.)

The winner will go on to face Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell of Biscoe, N.C.

The Club for Growth has 75,000 members and seeks to reduce income taxes, limit government spending and replace the current tax code with a fair or flat tax. The group focuses on a small numbers of candidates so it can direct more money and maximize its impact. Keadle is one of just 13 candidates nationwide endorsed by the Club for Growth this year.

“We found him to be a real champion of economic freedom,” Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, said of Keadle. “His personal beliefs he described to us . . . show that he’s committed to smaller, more responsible government.”

The group almost always picks the underdog, where leaders see their support can be the difference in the race, Chocola said.

In 2010, the club backed Marco Rubio’s campaign for the Senate Republican nomination in Florida against the early favorite, then-Gov. Charlie Crist. The club also helped defeat incumbent Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and helped pushed Sen. Arlen Specter out of the party. Pat Toomey, who defeated Specter in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary and went on to get elected to the Senate, is a former president of the Club for Growth.

Critics call the Club for Growth a right-wing extremist group pushing Republicans further from the mainstream.

Whether it’s the Club for Growth or another conservative group, the drive for their support is pushing Republican candidates away from meeting daily concerns of local voters, said North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman Walton Robinson.

The group is even causing challenges for Republican leaders who are attempting to build harmony, while luring moderate voters and satisfying more hard-line tea partiers. In North Carolina, Hudson, who also sought the group’s endorsement, said he thought the Club for Growth could be more productive in its efforts to elect conservatives to Congress.

“I would rather see them make better tactical decisions rather than spend their resources trying to defeat someone who will vote with them 90 percent of the time,” said Hudson, who remains the favorite in the 8th Congressional District race.

Keadle said he wouldn’t be beholden to the Club for Growth, but he defended their support. “I’m here to fight for the principles that are near and dear to my heart,” he said. “And the reason they’re supporting me is because my principles are near and dear to their hearts.”

With $236,000 cash on hand, Hudson has about $80,000 more to spend than Keadle. But Hudson doesn’t have the Club for Growth.

Hudson is backed by the YG Action fund, a political action committee run by former aides to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., which has spent about $75,000 on his behalf, according to the FEC. But those amounts pale in comparison to the $316,000 the Club for Growth has spent on behalf of Keadle, according to club numbers.

And the spending is expected to continue.

In 2008, the club spent nearly $800,000 in support of Maryland physician Andy Harris’s primary race against incumbent Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest. Harris won the primary, but not the general election. Harris later was elected to Congress, in 2010.

“One would suspect that is game-changing kind of money in a situation like this,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. “With that kind of money in a runoff in July, small numbers of votes are going to have a presumably significant difference on the outcome. It’s a big deal.”

It’s not just the victories that matter to the Club for Growth, Chocola said. There are other effects.

After the Club for Growth helped defeat Bennett, Chocola said, the voting record of Utah’s other Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, became dramatically more conservative. Hatch has a 77 percent lifetime rating on the closely watched Club for Growth scorecard. But in the past two years, Hatch scored a 97 percent in 2010 and 99 percent 2011.

“We think there is a ripple effect in everything we do,” Chocola said. “Sometimes Republican leadership probably likes what we do, and sometimes they don’t.”

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