Money & Politics: National Club for Growth gunning for Thompson -- but state affiliate isn’t

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The national conservative advocacy group Club for Growth has met the enemy, and the enemy is … Tommy G. Thompson.

Wisconsin’s popular former governor, sniffs Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller, is “the sort of Republican who got us into this mess in the first place.” Thus the group is working to sabotage Thompson’s bid for retiring Democrat Herb Kohl’s U.S. Senate seat in 2012, even before he’s a declared candidate.

Club for Growth’s leadership includes close associates of GOP Senate wannabe Mark Neumann, and its political action committee has given him its endorsement. The group calls Thompson a “career politician” who supported “massive tax and spending increases” during his 14-year stint as Wisconsin governor. Moreover, the group says, Thompson’s “support for Obamacare is undeniable.”

Thompson denies it. “I did not support Obamacare,” he told the Associated Press. “Never have, and I continue to speak out against it. They got their facts wrong and continue to lie about my record.”

Keller says Club for Growth’s goal is “to affect policy in Washington” and as such will not back Thompson, even if he ends up being the GOP nominee against a Democrat it likes even less.

The group has produced an ad attacking Thompson, which Keller says is running in major TV markets throughout Wisconsin. It isn’t saying how much these ads cost, but Keller calls it “a substantial buy” and only the beginning.

“There’s a lot more where this came from,” Keller says. “We certainly have the ability to spend a lot of money to make sure Wisconsin voters are educated about Thompson’s record.”

Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog in Washington, D.C., says Club for Growth’s role in the political process is mainly to “help bankroll political campaigns” and “run advertising campaigns designed to aid their preferred candidates.”

Center for Responsive Politics data show that national Club for Growth spent $8.2 million on independent expenditures in the 2010 election cycle on federal races. This included outlays of $183,205 against Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and $39,528 in favor of his victorious challenger, Republican Ron Johnson. This money comes from companies and individuals, almost all from out of state.

The group also gave $5.9 million through its conduit, which bundles contributions from individuals to candidates. That included $268,187 to Johnson.

Keller insists his group is distinct from Wisconsin Club for Growth, its state affiliate. “They stick to state issues, we stick to federal issues,” he says. “We have literally zero contact with them.”

Deb Jordahl, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Club for Growth, agrees: “The national and state clubs are completely separate entities.”

But both seem to have a lot of money.

According to Mike McCabe of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending, Wisconsin Club for Growth spent more than $2 million and perhaps closer to $10 million on Wisconsin’s recent recall elections.

Wisconsin Club for Growth doesn’t disclose where it gets its money or, for the most part, how it is spent. This is legal because the group runs “issue ads” that do not directly tell people how to vote.

McCabe alleges that Wisconsin Club for Growth is little more than a post office box that directs money of uncertain origin into state campaigns. Jordahl demurs, saying her group, which operates out of an undisclosed location (its mail is delivered in Sun Prairie), is a “real, living, breathing organization” with more than 5,000 in-state donors and a weekly newsletter that goes to 40,000 people.

And Wisconsin Club for Growth has distanced itself from the national group’s efforts to kneecap Thompson. The group, in a statement, said: “We recognize Gov. Tommy Thompson's significant contributions to improving Wisconsin's economy and reforming government. Gov. Thompson served the citizens of Wisconsin with distinction for 14 years.”

The term “outside special interests” gets bandied about a lot, but national Club for Growth is the real deal -- a group of outsiders who presume that the citizens of Wisconsin need to be educated to dislike their own former governor, even against the judgment of its own state affiliate.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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