WASHINGTON - Chris Chocola likes taking on his party's establishment and beating them at their own game. That's what he does for a living and he's helped pull off some big upsets.
In 2007, the former two-term Indiana congressman took the reins of the Club for Growth, a free enterprise group that supports pro-growth candidates who favor low taxes, oppose job-killing government regulations, and seek fiscal policy reforms to expand and strengthen our economy.
When Chocola, who has a business background, became its president, the Club was a relatively small organization, supported by about 35,000 contributing members. Under his leadership, it's mushroomed to nearly 100,000 donors and climbing. But it's stayed lean and mean, with a staff of only nine people, plowing the bulk of its resources into key, carefully researched races. "We have very low overhead," he said.
He has not only been responsible for its financial growth but also for picking winners among candidates who were given little chance of beating establishment opponents in the GOP primaries -- stunning the political pros in come-from-behind victories.
In the 2010 Republican Senate race in Florida, then-Gov. Charlie Crist was the odds on favorite to become its next U.S. Senator. His challenger, former state House speaker Marco Rubio, had little money, lower name recognition and not much of an organization.
Chocola sank nearly $400,000 into Rubio's campaign early in the race, giving him the resources to overcome Crist who was a supporter of President Obama's failed stimulus package and a man who was a Republican in name only. Crist made a last gasp bid as an independent, but Rubio went on to stardom in the Senate and was on Mitt Romney's short list for the vice presidency.
"We were early supporters of Marco Rubio before he became Marco Rubio," Chocola told me in an expansive interview in the Club's offices in downtown Washington.
Another strategic opportunity opened up in Pennsylvania in 2010 where an unpopular GOP Sen. Arlen Specter left his party and became a Democrat in a losing effort to hold on to his seat. The Club put its money behind former Rep. Pat Toomey, who had been its president between 2005 and 2009, and put one of their own in the Senate.
The Club for Growth began in the 1980s as a group of Wall Street businessmen and free market activists in New York who supported like- minded candidates. But over the years they found they could have a much bigger impact in the Republican party primaries.