Respond to this Article May 2005

Out of the Club

Why a conservative powerhouse booted its founder.

By Chris Cillizza

If they ever make a political “Behind the Music”—and at this point, anything is possible at the networks—the Club for Growth is a sure candidate for one of the first episodes. That may surprise many liberals, who often think of the entire conservative movement as a disciplined unit that brooks no dissent and therefore suffers no internal disputes. But then they probably missed the news earlier this year that the Club for Growth, the leading national fundraising group for fiscally conservative candidates, had parted ways with Stephen Moore, the Club's chief executive, public face, and, in recent years, perhaps the Beltway's most influential right-wing power broker. Although the move took place with little fanfare and practiced civility, both sides have quickly turned on each other, revealing a long-running fight between Moore and several members of the Club's board over how best to use its ever-increasing power.

It had started out so well. The Political Club for Growth was formed in the early 1980s by a group of roughly two dozen New York businessmen who interviewed candidates for office, testing their conservative bona fides on fiscal issues and rewarding acceptable political hopefuls with a pocketful of checks. It was an effective, but relatively small effort, and Moore had been involved peripherally from the beginning—coming to meetings and giving counsel. By the late 1990s, Moore—then a fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute—began to push for a full-time role, arguing that, under his leadership, the Club could become a key player in conservative Washington.

He was right. Moore convinced the group's founders to allow him to remake the Club with a harder edge—exacting a political pound of flesh from politicians who did not share their fiscal policy of tax cuts, balanced budgets, and more tax cuts. In 1999, Moore (along with his partners, the conservative financier Richard Gilder and National Review publisher Thomas “Dusty” Rhodes) rechristened the group the Club for Growth and immediately started spending their cash funding primary campaigns against Republican fiscal doves. (Moore coined the term RINO—“Republicans In Name Only”—to describe his targets.) Driven by the fundraising technique of “bundling,” a process whereby the Club serves as a conduit for donations that are then directed to candidates, the Club took off. By 2002, the organization had contributed $3 million to candidates around the country; in the 2004 election cycle, it raised $22 million ($7.5 million in campaign contributions) from more than 30,000 members and helped elect 16 new members of Congress, a 75 percent success rate. Moore's team was more responsible than any other group for the Republican purge of party moderates that has driven much of GOP politics during the Bush years; when National Review put Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on its cover with the headline “The Worst Republican Senator,” insiders saw traces of Moore's hand.

But as they say on the show, underneath the surface…[cue dramatic music]…trouble was brewing.

The very qualities that had initially made Moore an ideal spokesman and leader of the organization—his take-no-prisoners, blustery manner, and particularly his spotlight-hogging ways—had begun to grate on his fellow Club members. An August 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story on the group that featured Moore particularly irked his co-founders, according to several well-placed sources within the Club. His brash personality dominated the piece, overshadowing the efforts of Gilder and Rhodes. Always quick with a colorful quote, Moore boasted that Sen. Specter was “wetting his pants” over the Club's support for Congressman Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Republican primary and claimed that he would soon have Specter's “scalp” on his wall (a particularly ill-considered remark since Specter had temporarily lost his hair a few years earlier while undergoing treatment for brain cancer). “[The story] set the other people into a negative mode that never reversed,” acknowledges Art Laffer, an economist and former Club board member who considers himself a Moore ally. And Moore's decidedly odd personality quirks only made relations worse.

Club loyalists charge that Moore was a micromanager who was either unwilling or unable to cede control of even the most minute tasks—even insisting on opening every piece of mail that came through the office. Because he was often on the road, that policy meant the bundled checks that the Club delivers to candidates in primary campaigns (the Club's central activity) often arrived embarrassingly late. In one case, according to club insiders, Moore sent Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) $25,000 in bundled contributions to fight a primary challenger after the congressman had already won his race. Moore's critics within the organization believe the unusual micromanaging of incoming mail contributed to several losses by Club-endorsed candidates in the last election cycle. Not so, says Moore, who says he was just doing his job by combing through new contributions to make sure the biggest donors received personal thank-you letters.

But his critics say that Moore became star-struck by major donors and party bigwigs and lost his ideological way, abandoning their original vision for the Club and letting relationships affect his decision-making about which candidates the organization should support. They point to Moore's backing of moderate Reps. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) as examples of candidates whose fiscal views were poor fits for the Club but who were personally tight with Moore. When beer magnate Pete Coors walloped former congressman and outspoken fiscal conservative Bob Schaffer in the Colorado Republican senatorial primary after Moore insisted the Club remain neutral, board members rebelled, demanding that the CEO be removed. Moore says he never saw it coming. “We were soaring,” he told me. He believed the results of the 2004 election would alleviate any internal problems: “It is unusual to fire the coach after he wins the national championship.” But success didn't change the board's mind. They replaced their lead singer with now-former Rep. Pat Toomey, the same Toomey who had failed to knock off Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.

Now, Steve Moore has gone off to pursue a solo career, starting a new group of his own, the Free Enterprise Fund—the Wings of conservative fundraising, to the Club's Beatles. The Club, meanwhile, continues to rake in dollars and stir up controversy—most recently with a television ad campaign attacking Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for being insufficiently supportive of President Bush's plans to privatize Social Security. It's too early to assess the damage done to the Club and to Moore as a result of the split, but Moore is sure that his former organization will never be the same without him, becoming like the Police without Sting or Bon Jovi without Jon. “It is kind of a tragedy,” he says. “Everyone agrees the Club will never be the political powerhouse it once was.”

Chris Cilliza is a reporter for Roll Call.

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