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.
Chocola has since built on that strategy, focusing on a relatively small number of races -- "under 20 candidates on average," he said. "We tend to get involved where we can make a big impact."
By impact, he means replacing tired, go-along-to-get-along establishment politicians with challengers who want to replace failed, big spending, big government policies with pro-growth policies that work.
The Club certainly did that last month in the Senate GOP primary contest in Texas where Chocola made his biggest bet in the Club's history.
GOP Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had the endorsement of most of his party's establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry, for the Senate seat of retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison. Tea party backed challenger Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor General, was expected to be the runner-up.
But Chocola plowed $5.5 million into Cruz's campaign, and with the help of the Tea Party Express, also one of his big supporters, turned the race into a stunning upset. It wasn't even close. Cruz, a hardcore conservative, crushed Dewhurst in the rowdy runoff election by 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.
The Club also played a crucial role in the defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ending a 36-year Senate career that had establishment politics written all over it. He was beaten by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock with the help of $4.5 million from outside groups.
Chocola goes to great lengths to emphasize what's really at stake in these contests. "Get better candidates and you get better policies. We're trying to build a majority of fiscal conservatives."
"I think people are looking for something new," in this year's House and Senate races," he said. "They're saying, 'you guys aren't making this a better place. They are for limiting the size of government, they want pro-growth policies."
This could be the year when voters will be gearing up to make that change, particularly in Congress which is extremely unpopular right now.
Senate Democrats presently have a tenuous 53-to-47 seat majority. Republicans need a net gain of four to take control of the chamber, three seats if they win back the White House.
With the Obama economy tanking, unemployment rising, national poverty rates climbing higher, and the federal debt soaring to unprecedented levels, Majority Leader Harry Reid's days are numbered.
"Republican gains of 2-4 seats are likely at this point," says election tracker Stuart Rothenberg.
Senate Democratic seats are rated tossups in Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin and North Dakota is in the tossup/tilt Republican column.
Obama and the Democrats don't talk about the economy nowadays, and for a good reason. It stinks. Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the unemployment rates rose last month in 44 states.
It has become obvious to all but the most dyed-in-the-wool Democrats that economic growth isn't their strong suit.
What we need are pro-growth policies to replace the tax and spend, anti-job policies we have now, and fresh new faces in Congress who will vote to enact them into law.
The Club for Growth is getting us there one upset race at a time, replacing aging establishment pols with reformers to put America back on the road to economic recovery where jobs are plentiful once again.
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