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The one thing Trump and McConnell agree on: A hatred for this group

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Even lawmakers keeping an open mind about how the Club approaches the current cycle don’t hide their concern over the group’s past tactics.

“There’s a lot of work to be done on understanding the main goal is not to make a point on any one political issue, but to win,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), against whom the Club once tried to recruit a primary challenger.

But the Club hasn’t been content merely to cross Senate GOP leaders. The group has launched an offensive against Trump too, raising the spectre that a primary that was already destined to be brutal could end up bloody. In recent weeks, Trump has returned the volley, privately indicating that he would be far less likely to endorse down ballot candidates who are allied with the Club, according to two people close to the Trump campaign.

While it has never been known as a go-along-to-get-along institution, the Club has been increasingly embracing its position as party antagonist. And it enters the cycle with two powerful foes.

“It goes with the role, because if we weren’t willing to take some incoming and people not liking us, we couldn’t do our job,” said David McIntosh, the group’s president. Asked whether it was more important to elect candidates with the group’s political philosophy or to take back the majority, McIntosh said the former. “We have both goals,” he explained. “But the primary one is that focus on the economic conservatives.”

For many in GOP circles, the Club’s talents lie not in its ability to win elections but to generate attention. For that reason, they’re often loath to engage publicly with the group. But McIntosh insists that the organization’s motivation is fealty to principle. And if that means angering bigwigs, he’s comfortable with it.

He began the cycle by briefing reporters that Trump’s toxicity was hurting the party’s chances with swing voters and announcing that the group had not invited him to its annual donor retreat. Then, he outlined his plans to zero in on key Senate races.

In West Virginia, the Club announced it will spend at least $10 million to boost Republican Rep. Alex Mooney just as GOP recruiters are on the cusp of convincing the wealthy and popular Gov. Jim Justice to run. In Montana, the group is nudging Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who lost to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in 2018, to make another go while the NRSC has been heavily recruiting Tim Sheehy, a Navy SEAL and wealthy businessperson.

And in Ohio, the Club is beseeching GOP Rep. Warren Davidson
to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in what is already an extremely crowded field.

In 2020, Trump carried all three states. In 2024, they represent Republicans’ best opportunity to retake the Senate. All three of the Club’s preferred candidates in these states are members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus with profiles that might not endear them to swing voters in a general election.

And there is fear elsewhere in the party that those candidates or a divided primary will only boost the three veteran Democratic incumbents in those races.

“That’s an old shopworn line that the moderates have used for 20 years. And the data shows they’re wrong,” McIntosh said in dismissing those concerns. “The milquetoast kind of establishment Republicans actually do worse.”

But inside the NRSC, operatives are desperately trying to lock in candidates with broad appeal. One example: They have been trying to recruit Justice, a coal-mining magnate-turned-West Virginia governor who is increasingly expected to launch a run against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to McConnell, released a poll showing Justice was the only candidate who could beat Manchin.

Privately, strategists gripe that Mooney, a former Maryland state senator, could face carpetbagger attacks and struggle to fundraise while Justice, who is worth hundreds of millions, could write his own checks. Mooney backers counter that the congressman could easily run to the right of Justice, a Democrat-turned-Republican who supported President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.

The Club signaled its intent to boost Mooney with that $10 million or more cash infusion and McIntosh said that “unless Governor Justice is just dying to be in the Senate” he hoped he would sit out the race and “bring the whole party together.”

Both Justice and Mooney are hoping to claim the MAGA mantle by securing the backing of Trump himself in a state he carried by 39 points in 2020. Justice, who hunts with the former president’s sons, is actively trying to nab Trump’s endorsement, according to a person close to the governor. As is Mooney, who endorsed Trump last year. The congressman discussed the race with Trump and is also hoping for his backing, according to a person close to his campaign.

Tensions are running even higher in Montana where the Club is eagerly recruiting Rosendale, a two-term congressman, to take on Tester. Austin Knudsen, the state’s attorney general, is also weighing a run but many Republicans in D.C. and Montana are excited about a potential campaign by Sheehy, a political neophyte with no record to attack and who could self-fund a bid.

“He’s a great kid and a good business guy and smart,” Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) raved about Sheehy. “He’s going to represent the younger generation.”

Rosendale lost to Tester by more than 3 points in 2018 after being branded as a carpetbagger with a noticeable Baltimore accent. Privately, Rosendale has told friends and allies that he plans to run for Senate, according to a person familiar with his plans. Publicly, he has remained noncommittal, and he raised just $127,000 in the first quarter and spent more than that.

“Jon Tester does not represent the state of Montana,” Rosendale said in response to a question about his Senate plans. ”The voters in Montana will make a decision over the next 12 to 18 months on who they want to replace him.”

Asked why Rosendale would fare better against Tester six years later, McIntosh said the Club depleted its resources boosting him in the primary in 2018 and blamed Republican leaders for failing to come in for the general election.

“I am now very aware of that, and realize I can’t count on McConnell, because honestly, I don’t think his motive is simply to get the majority,” McIntosh said. “It is frustrating to watch the establishment not fund somebody and then say, Oh, they couldn’t win.”

Trump looms large in Montana. Rosendale has notably declined to endorse him, telling POLITICO he planned to remain neutral. Yet he traipsed to Mar-A-Lago to attend Trump’s post-indictment rally earlier this month — a move that befuddled some consultants in the former president’s orbit.

The former president’s campaign is closely tracking which members have endorsed him, according to two people close to the operation. Those people note that Republican operatives who want to dissuade Trump from backing an opposing candidate send Trump’s team news clips showing the Club’s support for that candidate.

The Club, which spent some $150 million in the past two elections, is still a major player in Republican politics and has close ties to many of the party’s top donors. Its spending is dwarfed by that of the Senate Leadership Fund but it will have the resources to cause headaches in primaries.

Some of its candidates would be well-positioned, if not favored, in a primary. But in others the path to victory is less clear. In Ohio, the group is pushing Davidson, a fourth-term member, to enter a field already crowded with wealthy businessmen.

“It’s safe to say I’m actually very actively looking at the race every day,” Davidson said in an interview. “I would clearly be the conservative.”

The group hasn’t always been on a different page from national Republicans. Both the Club and Trump aligned to support Blake Masters in 2022, with the Club spending more than $3 million to push Masters through a crowded primary. But Masters went on to lose to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).

“They didn’t do a really great job last time around,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said of the Club. “Their folks were underperformers and I just think people are tired of the anger and the vitriol and actually want to see people get along and get some things done.”

The Club did not back some of the other notable 2022 Senate losers, such as Don Bolduc in New Hampshire or Herschel Walker in Georgia. And it has had some success in boosting candidates to Congress, notably current Sen. Ted Budd, who won an open seat in North Carolina in 2022 with both Trump’s backing and the group’s support.

“I think they’ve really tried to get fiscally responsible people to win Senate races,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), another Club-backed candidate. “They were very influential in Ted Budd winning the primary and the general last time.”



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( With inputs from : www.politico.com )

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