The GOP civil war between Trump and the Club for Growth that is already making 2024 uncomfortable
If Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) posted a photo of himself in Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night — a show of solidarity for the first rally after former President Donald Trump was impeached — the tweet quickly spread among Republican political insiders.
It’s not that Rosendale isn’t the type to show up at an event like this. Far from it — the two-year congressman was a close ally of the former president, and Trump has personally visited Montana to promote Rosendale in the past.
But what got GOP tongues weeping was the sight of Rosendale at a Trump 2024 campaign rally, where he posed with Republican lawmakers who are die-hard supporters of Trump’s presidential nomination and expressed his solidarity with the former president — sans Trump’s campaign actually supported it.
Despite the pilgrimage, Rosendale walked away from the night without a conversation with the former president, according to an attendee close to Trump. A Rosendale representative did not respond to a request for comment.
For this bizarre visual, Rosendale has the escalating civil war between two of the GOP’s greatest centers of power to thank — where the congressman finds himself awkwardly in the middle.
As he ponders a second run for the U.S. Senate against Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), Rosendale would be the preferred candidate of the Club For Growth, the powerful big-money conservative political organization that is a major player in the GOP primary was in the last election cycles.
The club, as it is known in Beltway for short, used to work closely with Trump and his political operation. But since the two camps backed different candidates in the 2022 midterm primaries, their relationship has soured. Trump has openly devastated the club and its leadership; In turn, the club has not so subtly signaled its rejection of Trump’s third run for the White House.
Behind the scenes, the club has been pressuring members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus — of which Rosendale is a part — not to endorse Trump for president, according to a source who has spoken to several caucus members and their aides. Another Republican staffer corroborated this report. Politico, meanwhile, reported last week that a “surprising number” of HFC members are “silent” about their support for Trump in 2024.
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Club For Growth PAC President David McIntosh said it was “absolutely wrong” that his organization was pressuring candidates not to support Trump. “The only presidential candidate we have a problem supporting is Joe Biden,” he said.
But an understanding is emerging in GOP circles that supporting a candidate for Trump could make the club’s backing much more difficult in a contentious primary.
For Republicans like Rosendale, it’s an impossible situation. The club is a strong supporter: its network spent around $150 million in the 2022 election cycle to empower its candidates. Against better-known and better-funded potential rivals like MP Ryan Zinke and wealthy businessman Tim Sheehy, Rosendale could have long chances without the club’s help.
At the same time that Trump’s hold on the GOP base looks certain, Rosendale’s failure to own the MAGA lane in deep red Montana could derail his bid anyway.
Ahead of a busy 2024 election cycle in which the primary will shape Republicans’ chances of holding the House of Representatives and flipping Senate seats in a number of key battlegrounds, Rosendale may just be the first Republican hopeful to engage in a similar Catch-22 finds.
Some Republicans fear the power struggle will only cause collateral damage that could contribute to more disappointing election results and unnecessary feuds.
“Members of the House are so afraid of Trump hitting on them, they’re so afraid of stepping out of line that they just go along with it,” a Republican strategist without a dog in the fight told The Daily Beast.
The club using a window like Trump’s criminal complaint to pressure House Conservatives simply won’t make it under the current stimulus structure, the longtime aide added.
“You’re in a small district in general, and you can’t risk your re-election because this guy is against you,” they said. “You just don’t have the power to go against him. It’s the fear-driven model.”
However, the split from the Trump Club has not proved ironclad.
On Wednesday, the club backed Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) in his bid for Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) seat. Mooney, a long-time favorite of the group, was quick to endorse Trump’s 2024 campaign last November. The ex-president remains hugely popular in West Virginia, and Mooney’s likely main enemy – Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat until a few years ago, is both unpopular with the club and close to Trump.
In Indiana, the club endorsed Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) almost immediately after he announced he would run for the state’s soon-to-be-opened Senate seat in January. Last Friday, long after he vacated the field and cut off support for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm — making the club’s support far less relevant — Banks announced his support for Trump for president.
Some Republicans said they didn’t see much of a change in the club’s attitude toward Trump. “I went to the club about a month ago with a potential congressional candidate and there was no pressure in the interview regarding Trump,” said a veteran GOP staffer with ties to the group.
Still, the bad blood between Trumpworld and the club has been evident for some time – and seems to be getting worse.
Although the two camps worked closely towards common goals during his presidency, the MAGA movement never quite fitted in with the club’s Tea Party-era fiscal orthodoxy. In 2016, the group supported Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in his presidential election.
Observers trace the current divide to last year’s Ohio Senate primary, when the club endorsed Josh Mandel and Trump endorsed JD Vance. After Vance won, the club dished out millions to defeat Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, reportedly to be “reciprocated” to Ohio.
Ultimately, Trump and McIntosh stopped speaking to each other. Just before Trump entered the presidential race after the disappointing 2022 midterms, the club released a poll he commissioned showing the ex-president lost to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the early state primary .
When the Club snubbed Trump for withdrawing funds in February, Trump posted an angry tirade on his platform Truth Social, calling his one-time ally “the Club For NO Growth, a conglomeration of political misfits, globalists and losers.”
In public, McIntosh hasn’t attacked Trump so much as gently suggesting that the GOP should move on. “It’s time for a new standard bearer who believes in free market principles and will fight for them,” he told Axios in late January.
With Trump’s de facto declaration of war, however, the MAGA world was all too happy to keep Rosendale as a cautionary tale about staying on the fence in a presidential primary race that’s fast becoming personal.
An adviser close to Trump told The Daily Beast that Rosendale knows his “puppeteers” at Club For Growth “will not allow him to endorse Trump, and if he does, they will not fund his Senate campaign.” The aide argued Rosendale only “crawled” to Mar-a-Lago after pro-Trump figures called him out, “but he still hasn’t agreed.”
Other Republicans simply don’t see strategic wisdom in forcing candidates to choose sides. A GOP national adviser who works on congressional elections said the club’s antipathy to Trump consists in “unknowingly causing their candidates to fail by giving them a strong chance of being outflanked by the right in primaries.”
Arguing that backing Trump remains the wisest move for candidates on the club’s far-right political lane, the adviser said: “Any candidate who wants to outflank the club-backed candidates on the right simply needs to support Trump and compete against them as a MAGA candidate.”
“It’s a bizarre strategy that could really screw up a lot of big Conservative candidates,” they said.