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GOP wild card in U.S. Senate race

Ex-Hoosier lawmaker runs group backing Mourdock

Chocola
Donnelly
Mourdock

The U.S. Senate race between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Richard Mourdock is a rubber match of sorts.

This is the third campaign pitting Donnelly against Chris Chocola, the leader of a fiscally conservative public-policy group that has helped bankroll Mourdock’s campaign.

Chocola was a first-term GOP congressman from northern Indiana’s 2nd District when Donnelly, a printing company owner and attorney from Granger, challenged him in 2004. Chocola, who has homes in Elkhart and Marshall counties, won 54 percent of the vote as Republicans retained their House majority.

Donnelly attracted 54 percent of the vote to unseat Chocola as Democrats grabbed control of the House in the 2006 election. Donnelly was re-elected in 2008 and narrowly won in 2010, when the GOP recaptured the majority.

If any hard feelings are left over from their congressional campaigns, Donnelly and Chocola won’t acknowledge them.

“I don’t have any,” Donnelly said in a recent interview. “We worked hard on our campaign, and he worked hard on his, and we were fortunate enough to be successful (in 2006).”

Their shared history, “doesn’t have any bearing on our approach to this race,” Chocola said about the Donnelly-Mourdock contest. “It’s all about who is the best candidate to support a pro-economic growth agenda and who’s going to help change the culture of the Senate.”

Chocola, 50, and Donnelly, 56, weren’t always so civil.

“Chris Chocola’s entire campaign has been one desperate lie after another,” a Donnelly campaign TV ad claimed in 2006.

“Joe Donnelly: He puts politics before decency,” a Chocola radio ad insisted the same year.

A South Bend Tribune writer referred to their contest as a “slugfest.”

Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, said last week in an email: “What makes this year’s competition different – and worth watching – is that both Joe Donnelly and Chris Chocola are playing in a bigger league and the stakes for each person seem higher. It’s something of a grudge match situation, no matter what the players involved might say.”

Club for Growth

Chocola is “a staunch defender of the American taxpayer, fighting for the limited-government, free-market principles that are the foundation for economic growth in this country,” the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth said when he was named its president in 2009.

Before he went to Congress, Chocola had been chief executive officer of his family-owned CTB Inc., an agriculture equipment manufacturer in Kosciusko County that was bought by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2002. Club for Growth backed Chocola’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 2006, and the next year he joined its Growth Leadership Council.

The Michigan native replaced club President Pat Toomey after Toomey resigned to seek a Pennsylvania seat in the Senate, which he won in 2010.

In a 2011 interview with the Hill newspaper in Washington, Chocola called a club endorsement, “a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for fiscal conservatives.

Formed in 1999, Club for Growth calls itself “a national network of thousands of pro-growth Americans.” It advocates lower income tax rates and the reduction or elimination of dividend, capital gains and corporate taxes; the repeal of trade restrictions; the creation of Social Security personal retirement accounts; the rollback of federal regulations on businesses; and the expansion of school choice, charter schools and school vouchers for parents.

Meanwhile, the group appears to be trying to remake the GOP in its own image.

“Mr. Chocola has been a thorn in the side of the House leadership this year, urging Republican members to vote against many bills they support,” New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in March.

Club for Growth recently encouraged Congress to defeat the farm bill and the highway funding/student loan legislation. Both bills passed in the GOP House and the Democratic Senate.

The group also opposed the federal spending plan proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and approved by House Republicans. Chocola called it “a disappointment for fiscal conservatives” because it wouldn’t balance the budget until 2040 and would do away with automatic spending cuts contained in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Taking on GOP

Club for Growth has taken on Republican primary-election candidates it deems insufficiently conservative. Its highest-profile victories were the defeat of Utah Sen. Robert Bennett in 2010 and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in May.

Ten months before Club for Growth endorsed state Treasurer Mourdock in his run against Lugar, Chocola suggested on national TV that the six-term senator should retire. Last summer, Club for Growth ran TV ads casting doubt on Lugar’s record as a fiscal conservative.

The group’s super PAC spent $2 million, including $1.5 million on TV and radio ads, to boost Mourdock.

Roll Call, a Washington newspaper, reported in May that sources remembered Chocola having been miffed that Lugar, running unopposed in 2006, did nothing to help the campaigns of Chocola and two other Indiana congressmen who lost. The Journal Gazette has been told the same thing by sources.

“That’s just kind of silly,” Chocola said last week in a phone interview. “None of it is personal. We played a significant role in defeating Bob Bennett in 2010, and I don’t even know Bob Bennett.

“None of this is about personalities or personal relationships,” he said. “It’s all about the country and trying to address the problems we have. If you want different policies, you have to elect different people.”

He said Lugar, who had supported congressional earmarks and federal assistance for banks and automakers, “defined the culture of the Senate” and the Lugar-Mourdock race “fit our model.”

“People understand we have a government that is out of control and we have to rein in spending, and Mourdock’s the choice to do that,” Chocola said.

Club for Growth issues annual scorecards on lawmakers’ cumulative votes on economic issues, with 90 percent considered a passing grade. Lugar has a 65 percent career score. Donnelly, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate and conservative Democrats, is at 9 percent for his career.

Considerable clout

Of 29 congressional candidates endorsed by Club for Growth in 2010, all but two won their primaries, and 20 were elected in the fall, the Hill reported.

Since Jan. 1, 2011, Club for Growth has raised more than $9.2 million and spent more than $7 million on political campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Does Chocola wield more power as Club for Growth president than he did as a congressman?

“A member of the House has formal, governmental power voting on legislation and representing a particular district,” Notre Dame’s Schmuhl said. “However, as head of the Club for Growth, Chris Chocola possesses a larger megaphone and bigger wallet to influence and in some cases determine who will actually serve in Congress. That’s another kind of political clout, and, to my thinking, more potent and lasting.”

This year, Mourdock is among 14 Senate and House candidates backed by Club for Growth’s PACs. Others include Josh Mandel, the GOP nominee for a Senate seat from Ohio, and at least five candidates who have beaten or are running against what the club says are Republican “establishment” candidates in primary elections.

Chocola said it’s too early to tell the extent of aid Club for Growth will provide Mourdock for the Nov. 6 election.

“We continue to bundle contributions for Mourdock,” Chocola said. “We’ll see how much help he needs in the fall. He’s obviously got a lot of friends now. He’s been very successful in his fundraising.

“We have Senate primaries yet to focus on before we get to the general election,” he said.

But Club for Growth has already joined the general-election fray in Indiana. Since the May 8 primary election, it has issued news releases reminding media that Donnelly had voted for President Obama’s health care law and for California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.

Donnelly doesn’t seem to take it personally.

“We were opponents in two races, and they were both tough races,” he said about Chocola. “I never at any time since I’ve been in Congress ever went back and criticized any of his decisions or the way he ran the office or anything like that.”

Asked about the prospect for skirmishes with Chocola in his race against Mourdock, Donnelly said, “I guess we’ll deal with those when they happen.”

bfrancisco@jg.net

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