Sunday, September 25, 2022

Longtime former Trump ally turns to building 2024 ‘bullpen’

Those involved with the organization say they expect Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2024. But its flirtation with other possible Republican candidates represents an escalation of its tensions with Trump, and it shows how the Club for Growth — one of the biggest-spending outfits of the 2022 midterm elections—is working to elevate other voices.

“The Republican bullpen of leadership is strong, and Club for Growth is engaging these conservative champions with grassroots activists on the issues that matter, especially school choice,” David McIntosh, the group’s president, said in a statement.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. While Trump is widely seen as the heavy favorite in the 2024 primary, the former president has been sensitive to the idea he could be challenged: This week, his political team sent out a press release highlighting a poll showing him with a 10-point lead over DeSantis in a prospective race. Trump also took to social media to tweak another potential candidate, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The Club for Growth is forking over big sums to possible presidential contenders, recently donating $2 million to DeSantis’ reelection machine and another $1 million to a super PAC aligned with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, according to a person familiar with the contributions. The donation is among the largest the pro-Scott organization has received since its founding two years ago.

Last month, the group hosted an education policy-focused event with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Trump 2016 primary rival, in Nevada, an early state on the GOP nominating calendar. It held a similar event with Mike Pompeo, Trump’s onetime secretary of state and another possible contender, last year.

The outfit has longstanding relationships with each of DeSantis, Scott, Cruz and Pompeo, having supported them in previous elections.

The Club for Growth has also been examining DeSantis’ strength in a prospective matchup against Trump.

In surveys looking at a number of Republican primaries this year, it has included a question asking whether people would support Trump or DeSantis in a 2024 primary. According to a person involved in the effort, the polling began early this year, as part of a broader effort to measure Trump’s popularity in the party and the impact he was having in GOP primaries during the midterms.

The surveys have mostly shown Trump leading the Florida governor. But when the Club for Growth conducted polling over the summer, amid the congressional hearings into Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the margin tightened between the two. However, Trump later got a bump in Republican support following the FBI search for classified documents stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

The organization has also commissioned polling analyzing the broader field of would-be Trump successors in the GOP. Last month, the Club for Growth presented voters with pictures of nearly a dozen possible 2024 contenders and asked whether they were familiar with each of the figures. Those most recognized were former Vice President Mike Pence, Cruz and DeSantis. When respondents were asked if they had favorable views of the possible candidates, Pence, Cruz and DeSantis again scored the highest.

The Club for Growth-Trump saga began in 2016, when the organization spent millions of dollars on an advertising blitz aimed at stopping him from winning the nomination. But the two later became close, with the group taking steps to bolster the former president’s re-election effort. After Trump left office, McIntosh emerged as an informal adviser.

During flights on Trump’s plane, visits to Mar-a-Lago and in frequent phone calls, McIntosh counseled the former president on which midterm contenders he should endorse. Over the course of the election, Club for Growth and Trump backed the same candidate in roughly a dozen races.

But the relationship ruptured this spring, when Trump announced his support for Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance, who was running against the Club for Growth-backed Josh Mandel. During a contentious phone call, Trump asked McIntosh to stop running ads targeting Vance, according to a person briefed on the discussion. But the Club for Growth instead chose to spend even more, pumping millions of dollars into commercials which included past footage of Vance criticizing the Trump.

As the Club for Growth bombarded the airwaves, the former president lashed out at McIntosh in vulgar terms, sending him a text message through a personal assistant which included an expletive. The two have not spoken since.

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