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How Trump’s pact with the Club for Growth turned into a grudge match

The influential GOP group is challenging Trump’s picks in key Senate races amid competing claims to the MAGA mantle

Former president Donald Trump during a security briefing with state officials and law enforcement on June 30, 2021, in Weslaco, Tex. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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David McIntosh, head of the influential conservative group the Club for Growth, used to fly on Air Force One, get personal shout-outs from Donald Trump and boast to friends about his access to the former president. Until recently, McIntosh would meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago to coordinate endorsements in Republican primaries and even urge others to leave races, and the Club for Growth backed up the decisions by spending millions of dollars on campaign ads.

Now McIntosh and Trump aren’t speaking, according to Trump advisers.

People who have spoken to Trump say he regularly rails about the Club for Growth and the organization being disloyal.

The alliance cracked open after they backed different contenders in the Ohio senate primary two weeks ago. And it has fractured further as the Club for Growth has doubled down by pumping millions into Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary to boost late-surging Kathy Barnette against Trump’s candidate, the physician and television personality Mehmet Oz — putting two of the most influential forces in the GOP, Trump and the Club for Growth, at odds.

In an interview Monday, Trump said, “It’s their right to do it, but it’s a rather hostile act. It doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

The challenge comes at a time when multiple groups and figures are laying competing claims to the mantle of the “Make America Great Again” movement, gambling that undermining the preeminence of Trump’s endorsement might finally weaken his grip on the GOP.

“We’d love to partner with him, but sometimes we disagree; it’s that simple,” said Frayda Levin, a member of the Club for Growth’s board of directors. Referring to the former president’s two previous marriages that ended in divorce, Levin added, “No one can explain Trump’s relationships, nor can his five ex-wives or whatever. You can quote me on that.”

People close to McIntosh and the group say the last-minute intervention for Barnette is partly about getting even after Trump’s choice won in Ohio, and partly about reasserting their independence from the former president. But the intervention also led other candidates in the race to sharply attack her, fearful she would surge with their spending, strategists involved in the race said.

McIntosh, who did not respond to requests for an interview or to detailed questions, has told associates he expects more blowback after the intervention in Pennsylvania but still hopes to patch up his relationship with Trump. The relationship has been fraught before, with the Club for Growth having opposed Trump’s 2016 candidacy.

“They were very opposed to me initially,” Trump said. The former president said he was not sure if McIntosh remained an ally and declined to say whether he’d taken his calls, but did note he was working with him on some races, such as ousting Republican Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming.

He said McIntosh broached him with joining forces more than two years ago, and they’d had a “steady force” of a partnership since. Trump said the Club for Growth was initially opposed to him on various issues and his candidacy, but he came to like them because “they fight very hard” and “they’re effective.”

“They’re spending millions and millions of dollars, and I’m saying that could certainly break up a romance. That could break up a good romance,” Trump said of the group’s involvement in the Pennsylvania and Ohio Senate races.

Trump said he wasn’t sure why McIntosh was working hard against his candidates.

“I don’t know. Maybe they’re trying to prove a point. So far it hasn’t worked,” he said.

He added: “It’s almost like they wanted to show me something.”

If the feud sticks, McIntosh could join a long list of former campaign advisers and administration officials whose efforts to influence Trump ended in bruising public spats.

“David got pretty swept up in all the stuff. He got in pretty deep,” said a person familiar with the Club for Growth’s operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations. “Maybe he thought he was playing Trump. There’s a chance he thought he was smarter than Trump. It obviously didn’t work.”

The alliance has served both men. McIntosh, a 63-year-old former Indiana congressman who co-founded the Federalist Society, used his bond with the former president to bolster his standing with some of the largest donors on the right, helping the Club for Growth amass a record budget for this year’s midterms. It also gave McIntosh sway in the Republican Party that he previously did not have — he often told others about his close relationship with Trump and how he wanted to use it to shape endorsements.

On Trump’s end, the alliance allowed him to endorse without spending much of his own money.

The Club for Growth’s largest funder by far is Richard Uihlein, the Illinois-based packaging magnate who has given the group almost $18 million this cycle, according to disclosures to the Federal Election Commission. Uihlein could not be reached for comment. Other top donors include Pennsylvania investor Jeff Yass, board member Virginia James and Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks.

The group has spent more money on races this cycle than any other outside group, and most — $19.8 million, according to FEC data — went into backing candidates Trump endorsed and attacking their rivals. That spending helped Trump notch a 58-1 winning streak for his endorsed candidate this cycle. Meanwhile, the former president’s PAC is sitting on more than $100 million and has laid out only about $700,000, according to FEC reports. But Trump advisers said the PAC has spent more supporting David Perdue for governor in Georgia that has not yet been disclosed to the FEC.

“Trump has his motivation to be someone endorsing people and demonstrating he has clout and the ability to influence the Republican Party,” said Jon Jones, an Alabama-based Republican consultant who advised the Senate campaign last year for Rep. Mo Brooks. “And the Club for Growth has their agenda, too. They both want winners.”

The Club for Growth started in 1999 as a booster for candidates dedicated to lower taxes, deregulation and limited government. The group styled itself as independent, insurgent and anti-establishment. It would vet candidates for their views on these issues, publishing scorecards and awarding coveted endorsements backed by campaign checks and outside spending.

One candidate who did not fit the group’s free-market mold was Trump. It ran ads in 2015 and 2016 attacking Trump’s record on taxes, trade, bailouts and health care, and held out on endorsing him even as he secured the Republican nomination.

In the White House, Trump met with McIntosh to smooth over the discord, according to people close to both sides. The rapprochement was brokered by Marc Short, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who was friendly with McIntosh from their shared home state of Indiana. McIntosh was even present for a final small gathering with Pence, just before he left the Naval Observatory as vice president.

“David viewed his partnership with Trump as a way to help steer the Trump team to more conservative, free-market candidates,” Short said. “The club was once more selective in years past with its endorsements. Some would say David has expanded the races and that’s helpful, and others would say that if you’re more selective, then your cause is more clear.”

Trump and McIntosh stayed in touch throughout his presidency and increasingly started coordinating efforts. In one instance, then-National Republican Senatorial Committee Director Kevin McLaughlin urged Trump to support Roger Marshall in the 2020 Kansas Senate primary but warned that the Club for Growth was planning to spend heavily against him, according to people familiar with the meeting. Trump responded, “I’ll fix that.” He called McIntosh and, after a bit of friendly chitchat, asked him to stay out of the race. McIntosh agreed, and Marshall prevailed.

The alliance strengthened further after Trump left the White House, and McIntosh proved capable of influencing his choices as well. He successfully lobbied Trump to endorse Ted Budd for Senate in North Carolina and tried to clear the field by pushing Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) to run for a House seat instead. “They were wanting me to step down from the Senate race and run for a House seat instead and there would be support,” Walker recalled of meeting the two together at Mar-a-Lago this year. Walker didn’t agree.

Another person close to the former president’s operations said McIntosh was a frequent presence at Mar-a-Lago, in-person and on speakerphone, throughout 2021. “He probably had more influence on endorsements than anyone else,” this person said, with Trump sometimes telling other advisers what McIntosh was saying about particular races or putting him on the phone.

Some of those other Trump advisers grew jealous of his influence and looked for ways to dislodge him, according to people close to both operations. A misstep in 2021 provided an opening.

In a special election for a Texas congressional seat opened by the death of Rep. Ron Wright, Trump and McIntosh backed his widow, Susan Wright. Despite the support from Trump and the Club for Growth, Wright lost to Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Tex.), leading Trump’s advisers to blame McIntosh, according to people close to the discussions.

“McIntosh was told Trump doesn’t forget, watch your back,” said a person close to the Club for Growth who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations. “McIntosh’s response was, ‘I already talked to him, and we’re all good.’ ” A spokesman for McIntosh did not respond to a question about this episode.

In this year’s Ohio Senate primary, the Club for Growth started backing Josh Mandel while Trump initially stayed on the sidelines. McIntosh thought he could keep Trump out of the contest, just as the former president had kept him out of Kansas in 2020, according to people close to the discussions. But other advisers prevailed, and he endorsed memoirist-turned-investor J.D. Vance.

The Vance endorsement put the Club for Growth in a bind, according to people familiar with its operations. McIntosh hadn’t meant to get crosswise with the former president, but abandoning Mandel would hurt the group’s credibility with donors, candidates and voters. It aired ads attacking Vance by highlighting his past criticisms of Trump, and even criticizing Trump for endorsing him.

That especially irked the former president, according to advisers, and he had his assistant send McIntosh an obscene note — a development first reported by the New York Times. Trump was also annoyed that the group did not rescind its support for Brooks when he did so this year. Vance and Donald Trump Jr. started punching back at the Club for Growth, deriding it as “the Club for Chinese Growth.” The group, for its part, added more spending.

“Until the Vance-Mandel race, we had no problem,” Trump said. “I thought that was pretty hostile. I was surprised.”

Vance beat Mandel decisively. But when polling showed Oz faltering in Pennsylvania, the Club for Growth saw an opportunity to settle the score by backing the gaining Barnette, people close to the group said.

“They were looking for a chance to stick it to Trump after Trump stuck it to them in Ohio,” the person familiar with the group’s operations said. “They found this ultra-MAGA long shot wasn’t such a long shot after all.”

Levin, the group’s board member, said Barnette impressed the Club for Growth’s staff in her interview and indicated her support for its free-market principles. But some of her past comments could diverge from its orthodoxy. In a 2012 interview, Barnette defended bailouts, saying, “We missed a Great Recession by a hair of a breath, and we did so because the government threw a massive amount of money at it. And in large respect we learned a great deal from the Great Depression, you must bail out some organizations.” Barnette’s campaign manager, Bob Gillies, declined to comment on those statements and said she welcomes the Club for Growth’s help.

People close to the group said it’s having to adapt to a Republican base that appears energized less by free-market principles than culture wars and more nationalist economic policies. In a sign of how both the Club for Growth and the base have shifted priorities in the party that Trump remade, the group has not published scorecards rating candidates on their free-market views in 2021 or 2022.

“It seems like the club is going through a bit of an identity crisis in a post-Trump world,” said Ken Spain, a former spokesman for Koch Industries now with the communications firm Narrative Strategies. “The Trump wing of the party, which is the ascendant wing, is much more populist and less beholden to their established philosophy.”

Michael Kranish and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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