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How the Club for Growth is (still) trying to stop Donald Trump

If only. David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, with one of the group's preferred presidential candidate, Ted Cruz. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

There's no way around it. The Club for Growth -- the economically conservative, influential tea party-aligned group that's known for propping up challengers to centrist Republican incumbents -- has already lost this presidential race.

The Club was vehemently against Donald Trump's candidacy. They spent millions this Republican primary warning voters across the country that Trump is no fiscal conservative.

Now that Trump is Republican's presumptive presidential nominee, the Club isn't necessarily on board with him -- but they're not actively trying to take him down either. Instead they're trying to walk a fine line between promoting party unity and getting people out to vote for Republicans who can be a bulwark against a President Trump.

So far their super PAC has endorsed seven Senate candidates, including five incumbents, and five House candidates. Not one of them is a Trump ally, though some (Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania) say they'll support Trump.

"If you can't beat him, do what you can to promote your ideas," said former Indiana Rep. David McIntosh, the Club's president of Trump.

I sat down with McIntosh to talk about the Club's 2016 game plan and how Trump could mess it up (or help it). Our conversation is edited for length.

THE FIX: So Donald Trump's the nominee. You lost that battle. Now what?

MCINTOSH: Our focus is 100 percent on House and Senate races. Part of that is what we do each cycle, but there's an element to it which is different this election cycle, which is sharing a message of: If voters are dissatisfied with the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it's all the more important they vote for Congress. If it looks like one of the downballot effects is Republicans are staying home, we'll emphasize that message in particular.

THE FIX: And what about that message do you think will resonate with Republican voters who aren't Trump fans?

MCINTOSH: Our members like calling themselves constitutional conservatives. And in the constitutional balance that's set up when you have a president who may not be doing the right things, Congress is a competing source of authority and power. So it fits our world view that we need better negotiators if Trump's going to be president.

THE FIX: So you're not in the 'Never Trump' crowd anymore?

We actually never were. There's a political understanding that at this point, he's the nominee or likely nominee. And party loyalty makes sense, because our champions are running as Republicans.

What we're basically saying is: If you like Trump and want to see him president, great. Support us in what we're doing in the House and Senate.'But if you're in the 'Never Trump' category, it's even more important we focus on House and Senate races. Those voters will say: 'I can't be for Trump, so what do I do?' And we're trying to answer that question by saying: Elect Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Elect Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. Go for the strong free-market conservatives in the House and Senate.

THE FIX: During the primary, you warned your candidates not to endorse Trump. But after the primary, is it okay they endorse him? Is there a sense on your end they're endorsing out of necessity, for the sake of party unity?

MCINTOSH: I think that's a good way to put it. We understand the position they're in as elected officials and leaders in the party.

THE FIX: Can the party unify by November?

MCINTOSH: Oh that's a good question. Interestingly, in politics, being opposed to something or someone is a way that parties are often unified. Hillary Clinton stands as that type of figure -- you're seeing a lot of Republicans unify around the notion that we need to stop her from becoming president.

On the other side, the social conservatives and economic conservatives are probably the part of the coalition that is most dubious about Trump, because in the past his positions weren't that different from Hillary Clinton's. So our goal now is: If everything's up for negotiation for the guy, send fiscal conservatives to Congress who will say 'No, Donald, we are not going to support your budget if it's got a tax increase.'

THE FIX: What worries you about a Trump presidency?

MCINTOSH: I think his first budget is going to be hugely important of what his priorities will be. If I had to predict, it will be a complete crap shoot, in particular [because] I don't think he even knows what that would look like. And in part because I think he would view everything as the starting point for a negotiation.

If he did that seriously, that'd be different than the past 20 or so years where presidents haven't really wanted to negotiate with Congress to get a budget through. I think this election is different because everything's up for grabs. And so in that sense, running the country could be different too.