An influential conservative group is going after longtime Republican Rep. Mike Simpson from Idaho — and it's getting started nearly a year in advance of the 2014 primary.
The Club for Growth is throwing its weight behind GOP challenger Bryan Smith, calling him a fiscal conservative: anti-tax and pro-growth. The lawyer from Idaho Falls is the first candidate endorsed through a website the club launched earlier this year called PrimaryMyCongressman.com.
It features a picture of a rhinoceros — a reference to a RINO, as in "Republican in name only" — and it asks people to submit the names of representatives in safe GOP seats who aren't conservative enough. This week, Simpson was the first of the 10 Republicans listed so far to get a big red "primaried" stamped over his head.
Chris Chocola, the Club for Growth's president, says Smith was suggested by several people as a possible challenger to Simpson.
"We reached out to him. We got to know him, and we're very impressed with what we found," Chocola says.
Chocola calls the incumbent, Simpson, "one of the biggest liberals in the Republican Party today."
For Smith, the club's endorsement means conservative street cred — and money. Chocola says the club's members are very generous.
"And they actually send the checks to us, and we literally put all those checks in an envelope and send them to Bryan," Chocola says. "And so he gets a big envelope with a lot of money in it, which is probably a good day for him."
In a press release, Simpson's campaign said it had raised more than $300,000 in the second quarter of this year. Simpson said he is "confident that the totality of my career, and the conservative record I have established, are consistent with the values and expectations of the people of Idaho."
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, describes Simpson as "very conservative."
"By no stretch of the imagination could you look at Mike Simpson's voting record and call him a moderate," Ornstein says.
But Simpson did vote for the fiscal cliff deal and the Wall Street bailout. Ornstein says Simpson is among the increasingly rare breed of congressmen willing to compromise to get something done — and for that he is paying a price.
"There's an intimidation factor here that's immense, and the people who are behind it, they know if they pick out a handful of examples and go after them, that's going to shape the behavior of large numbers of others," Ornstein says.