In the eyes of Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, Richard Mourdock would be in the U.S. Senate today if not for controversial comments about rape and pregnancy during a debate in 2012.
"He made an inexcusable mistake, he did," Chocola said at a Wednesday evening debate hosted by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. "He went to a debate -- if he'd just gotten a flat tire, he'd be a senator today."
Mourdock defeated six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) in a Republican primary in 2012, but lost the general election after saying at a candidate debate that he opposed abortion even if the pregnancy resulted from rape.
Candidate electability was one of many topics over which Chocola sparred with Steve LaTourette, the head of the Main Street Partnership, a moderate Republican group. Chocola, a former congressmen, exchanged blows for an hour, butting heads with LaTourette in a set-to billed as "The Tea Party versus The Establishment." They tussled over the government shutdown, Obamacare and outside spending, occasionally lobbing one-liners that elicited chuckling from the crowd.
"These groups love to engage in a sport called RINO hunting," said LaTourette in reference to the acronym for the term "Republican In Name Only." "You'd think they are on a safari all the time."
LaTourette argued that tea party groups' unwillingness to budge from hard right positions, insistence on challenging Republican incumbents and preemptive warnings that members vote against certain bills have hurt the party and led to infighting that has imperiled its chances of taking back the White House.
"Anybody that believed that because of Sen. [Ted] Cruz's filibuster on the Senate floor that Barack Obama down at the White House was going to go, 'You're right, that Obamacare sucks, let's just get rid of it,'" would have been wrong, said the former Ohio congressman. "It was a non-winning strategy."
Chocola defended his group's activities, challenging LaTourette to find a position the Club supports that is not in the GOP platform. He said that the country's sharp fiscal challenges explain why his group takes such a hard line.
"We're not the radicals. We're the rational actors," the former Indiana congressman said. He recalled wanting to reform Social Security during the Bush administration only to be rebuffed by House GOP leaders who were fearful of an electoral backlash.
"What good is a majority if you're not going to use it? What good is it being part of the team if the team is the problem?" asked Chocola.
The two disagreed about the result of tension between tea party groups and the GOP establishment. In LaTourette's view, conservative groups' decisions to spend money trying to defeat fellow Republicans in recent elections paved the way for Democrats to have a majority that allowed them to pass the health-care law.
"Do you think something gets more conservative with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid writing the bill?" he asked.
To Chocola, the clash of ideas will restore the Republican Party to its principles not dismantle it.
"I think the friction is going to save us not destroy us," he said.
When the conversation turned to elections, Chocola noted that while the tea party losses by the likes of Sharron Angle and Mourdock are often blamed for the GOP failing to win the Senate majority the past two cycles, establishment Republicans like Rick Berg in North Dakota, Denny Rehberg in Montana and George Allen in Virginia also lost winnable Senate races. He pointed to Club-backed candidates who won, like Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida.
At the conclusion of the debate, LaTourette offered to return all the money his group has raised if the Club would just stop going after Republican incumbents. It is trying to defeat Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) this cycle.
"I decline your offer," responded Chocola.
"Alert the media," joked LaTourette.