WASHINGTON, D.C. - Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a key free-market voice, Thursday warned that Mitt Romney hasn’t made the case that he is a “pro-growth” candidate and that his positions on free trade and other issues have given conservatives pause this year.
Asked during a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast whether Romney fits his definition of a “pro-growth candidate,” Chocola said bluntly “I Don’t know. We’ll see … we’ll see if he is a pro-growth president” if he is elected.
“I think he has the potential to exceed expectation. But it’s a mixed bag with Romney, that’s his problem. People don’t really know,” Chocola explained, noting that his recent attacks on the nation’s trading relationship with China “gives us cause for concern. He knows better [but] he says what he says.”
“There is always a question because of how he has served in the past … so our expectation is uncertainty,” Chocola added.
Although he went on to acknowledge Romney is the “best” alternative for conservatives in this year’s election, it was hardly a ringing endorsement.
In fact, Chocola noted that the Club, which he said boasts more than 100,000 members, opted to not endorse a Republican during the presidential primary “because we didn’t think there was a candidate we could recommend to our members.”
And on the one specific policy area Chocola spoke about — trade with China — he offered a harsh assessment of both Romney and President Barack Obama.
“When you start to threaten a trade war with china, when you start to pander politically on trade, you hurt the economy,” Chocola said, adding that, “We think both of them are guilty of political pandering to the detriment of economic growth.”
Meanwhile, the influential conservative leader all but announced that his organization would actively work to defeat South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham during his upcoming 2014 primary race.
“The sun may rise with South Carolina,” Chocola said.
“Lindsey Graham has not faired well on our score cards … not always in line with our pro-growth agenda,” he explained, noting that “there’s interest beyond that ground with that race.”
But he did temper his comments, noting that it “all depends on what the alternative is. We can be against anyone or anything, but we need to have something to offer.”
Chocola, a former member of Congress from Indiana, also conceded that in the Senate it looks like the GOP is facing an uphill battle for control. “Republican candidates are going to have to everything right, they’re going to have to hope the political climate is going their way come election day,” he said.
But he also rejected criticism from some within the Republican Party who have complained about his organization’s efforts to either defeat moderate Republicans or not provide cover for vulnerable members, like Sen. Scott Brown.
“Scott brown is not our kind of guy … we’re not in the business of electing Republicans,” Chocola said … That’s what the [National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee] is for.”
“We find a few champions, we support those guys and hope they do good work,” he said.
And he bluntly warned Republicans against crossing Republicans, pointing to his organization’s success in defeating former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010.
“There is a ripple effect to challenging incumbents. Perhaps the best example is Sen. Orin Hatch,” Chocola said, noting that since the defeat of his longtime colleague, “Orin Hatch started voting to the right of [Sen.] Jim DeMint. It’s hard to get to the right of Jim DeMint, but he did.”
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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