One thing is clear in the troubling weeks following the loss of a Republican U.S. Senate seat in Indiana: Chris Chocola will not give up easily in his quest for ideological purity.
Within hours after U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced that she would challenge U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia two years hence, the Club for Growth president and former Hoosier congressman took aim, just as he did at Sen. Dick Lugar this year. He faulted the Republican for voting for the Medicare prescription benefit, congressional earmarks, and several other measures passed in the wake of the Great Recession and Wall Street meltdown.
“Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork and bigger government,” he said. Even though Capito won re-election with 70 percent of the vote this year and many observers believe she will present a stern challenge to Rockefeller, her ideological credentials are suspect.
Chocola appears to be undaunted, despite the Indiana Senate fiasco that saw Treasurer Richard Mourdock upset Lugar, then lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly. Chocola simply underestimated the warning signs that Club for Growth PAC members witnessed more than a year ago.
In January 2011, about a month before he declared his Senate candidacy, Mourdock had what was by all accounts a disastrous meeting with the Club for Growth PAC.
As Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz reported, Mourdock “grew testy and even raised his voice at club officials when they peppered him with their standard questions about monetary policy.”
Yet, on Feb. 12 this year, Chocola officially endorsed Mourdock, citing Lugar’s adherence to “earmarks”—only a minuscule slice of the federal deficit—as the reason to go all in for Mourdock.
“Enough is enough,” Chocola wrote in what was a damnation of Lugar as opposed to a vote of confidence for Mourdock. “We looked for signs that Lugar had changed his ways, but we found none.”
Club for Growth proponents were slurping the Kool-Aid, with one reacting to Chocola’s endorsement, saying, “That seat will go to the primary winner. Switching to Mourdock is not risky at all.”
Chocola told me last June, “He wasn’t prepared for the meeting. Maybe it was because we knew each other and he didn’t expect the kind of objective interview and so he clearly wasn’t ready for the conversation.”
What Chocola and Club for Growth chose to ignore was that first PAC performance. It should have ignited concerns about Mourdock’s temperament, which, as the campaign unfolded, provided the seeds for his defeat.
In the 48 hours after Mourdock’s stunning landslide victory over Lugar, political observers, consultants and voters saw pure hubris as Mourdock said in cocky fashion that he took pleasure in “inflicting my opinions on someone else.”
There were a series of campaign miscues, the need for “adult supervision,” ducking joint appearances with other candidates, the campaign’s changing its core partisan message and, finally, the “God intends” debate rape remark.
The Mourdock campaign and its national allies never seemed to grasp that Republican voters cannot secure victory alone, that there was a need for independents.
When all was said and done, Chocola and Club for Growth would steer $3.5 million of the group’s $16 million budget for the cycle into efforts to defeat Lugar in the primary ($1.7 million), then the general-election loss to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
They booted away a reliable GOP Senate seat. It will be Donnelly who will be casting votes on earmarks, tax and fiscal policy instead of a Hoosier Republican.•
• Howey is a third-generation Hoosier journalist who publishes Howey Politics Indiana. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.