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Club for Growth wields stealthy, well-financed influence in Senate race

Well-financed group spends its cash against incumbent

Published: Monday, April 5 2010 1:27 a.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — One campaign reported spending a whopping $120,000 on Utah's U.S. Senate race in just the final three weeks before the March 23 party caucuses. That's more than some Utah congressional campaigns spend in two years.

The deluge of cash included nearly $46,000 for phone banks and other activities to get people to the caucuses, nearly $26,000 for TV ads, another $26,000 for Internet ads and Web site costs and $22,000 for mailings.

That spending didn't come from the campaign of incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, nor by the campaigns of any of his seven GOP opponents.

It was by The Club for Growth, a national fiscally conservative group that has bedeviled Bennett since last summer. The club and its deep financial pockets may be wielding more influence in the race than most candidates. The Washington-based group is unleashing its fury at Bennett because club members say he has a poor record on lowering taxes and limiting government.

"We spent nearly half of our spending on things we hoped would drive up caucus turnout," said club executive director David Keating. "Our theory was that new caucus-goers would not be friendly to Bennett."

He added, "This spending included a very heavy Fox News cable buy, and heavy Facebook and Internet advertising. As a result of the Internet ads, over 8,000 people signed up on our (StopBobBennett.com) Web site or our Facebook fan page to help us increase turnout at the caucuses."

As reported earlier, Deseret News analysis shows that only about 20 percent of the delegates to the 2008 state convention were re-elected this year at caucuses that reported record crowds, meaning 80 percent of delegates will be "new blood." Normally, about 45 percent to 50 percent of delegates are re-elected.

As BYU political scientist Kelly Patterson said, "Instinct tells you that a big influx into any sort of political process tends to favor insurgents…. Normally that does not bode well for incumbents."

Two-edged sword

Bennett says he sees the club's spending and influence as a two-edged sword, saying many of the club's charges against him stick with some people and help some of his challengers, but cause a backlash among some voters.

"Some of my challengers who would have had difficulty coming after me because of lack of support are more buoyant than they would be otherwise because they can piggyback on the Club for Growth," he said.

He notes many people who tell them why they oppose him "say almost word for word what is in some of the Club for Growth materials." But, Bennett says, "If I can meet with delegates personally, I find that it is easy for me to answer and rebut them and have those concerns go away."

Bennett adds, "I have also had individuals come up to me and say, 'I am so offended at this outside group coming into Utah telling me how to vote that I will be in solid for you just in protest of that.'"

The club was able to spend so much money because federal law puts no caps on spending independently and not in coordination with any candidate. In contrast, federal law limits donations that the club's political action committee may make to Senate candidates to just $5,000 through the May 8 state convention.

How much candidates themselves spent in the weeks before the convention is not yet known. They have different disclosure deadlines than groups that make independent expenditures. Candidates report next on April 15.

Who is Club for Growth?

While some critics have called Keating's group a "rich man's club," Keating said, "Our members are from all walks of life. And in the alphabet, one of the first occupations listed in our database is accountant and the last is yoga instructor."

Keating said the club has 50,000 members, and "advocates policies that helps create economic freedom, things like low taxes and limited government," and said Bennett's record on them compared to other Republicans "has been mediocre at best." Bennett contends his goals are the same as the club's, and his record is good on those issues.

The club especially hates a health care reform bill that Bennett pushed for years with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "In many respects we think it's even worse than Obamacare because its even more expensive," which Bennett disputes, and says his bill would actually have saved money.

Keating said, "Obama was talking on the 'Today' show about how they incorporated a number of allegedly Republican ideas in the final bill. And one of the first people out there talking about a mandate to purchase insurance was Sen. Bennett …. That key concept wound up in the bill itself."

Shenanigans

Bennett and the club have often called each other liars in recent months.

One of those issues involved a youTube video that the club posted saying that it showed Jim Bennett, the senator's son and campaign manager, telling Bennett followers to lie if necessary about their possibly secret support of the senator to get elected at any caucuses where they may be outnumbered by opponents.

Jim Bennett said he was making light-hearted, joking comments that were taken out of context in the video clip. He said that Mitt Romney at the same Salt Lake event this year joked that supporters should vote early and often, but no one took that seriously. He also cried foul that the club sent its people under cover to film Bennett's events intended only for his supporters.

Some cries of undue outside influence also came when the club made an attempt to persuade Bennett's opponents to sign an "anyone but Bennett" pledge. Cherilyn Eagar, one of those opponents, unveiled that and denounced it as outside manipulation.

Eagar said the club asked challengers to pledge that if they are eliminated in early rounds of voting at the convention to throw their support to anyone but Bennett, at least anyone who also had signed the same pledge. Keating said the club dropped that effort after Eagar's complaints, and figured it would instead focus on "educating about Bennett's record."

National influence

The club in recent years has made news for going after and defeating incumbents that the club argued were RINOs — Republicans in name only — and helping some conservatives who had little initial name recognition to win or be competitive. This year, for example, in the Florida U.S. Senate race, the club is backing Marco Rubio who is running against incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist.

Bennett says the group has wandered away from its founding principles. He said its attack on him, "is a power play on their part to make them more of a factor in Republican politics than it is a nonpartisan attempt to influence free market principles."

Also this year, the club and its supporters are listed as the largest of all blocks of contributors to several of the nation's most conservative senators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes giving $168,000 so far in the 2010 cycle to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; $156,000 to Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz.; $143,000 to Sen. James DeMint, R-S.C.; and $65,00 to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Convention work

The club is continuing to work on Utah delegates leading up to next month's convention. Keating said that it has sent all of them letters congratulating them on their election, and told them it will be providing information on Bennett's record.

Bennett complained the last letter "still is misinterpreting my views," but said it "at least does so in terms that are less inflammatory."

He adds, "Maybe their own research demonstrates their attacks are backlashing against them, so they have toned down their rhetoric."

But that last letter shows how the club still may be spending more and is better organized than some candidates. Keating said, "We even saw a tweet from one delegate saying he got our letter before several of the candidates had contacted him."

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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