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Divergent battle plans in the GOP primary war

Two of the most influential conservative groups are taking different approaches to the 2014 GOP primary wars.
McConnell and Cornyn address reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) address reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 11, 2013. Both Senators face far-right wing challengers in 2014.

In the GOP primary wars, not all groups are going to battle with the same game plan. 

Cash-flush outside groups have been one of the driving forces behind efforts to oust more than a half-dozen Republican incumbent senators in favor of more conservative candidates. But two of the most influential groups--the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund--aren't necessarily approaching the 2014 playing field the same way.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former senator-turned-Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint (he's no longer affiliated with the group), hasn't been afraid to take Republican leadership head on, making Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell its biggest target yet. But Club for Growth appears to be exercising a more cautious approach, waiting to see not just the viability of candidates but also looking at the longer record of an individual senator before making them a target.

The new Senate primary in Texas is the latest example of the differences between the two groups. After Tea Party favorite Rep. Steve Stockman announced an 11th-hour surprise campaign against Sen. John Cornyn -- the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- the Senate Conservatives Fund cheered the challenge late Monday but stopped short of a full endorsement.

"We haven't decided yet whether we will endorse Steve Stockman, but we're excited about the potential here," the group's executive director, Matt Hoskins, said. "Texas deserves two conservative fighters in the Senate, not just one. John Cornyn has voted to increase the debt, raise taxes, bail out Wall Street banks, and fund Obamacare. He's part of the problem in Washington and voters deserve an alternative."

But on Tuesday morning, Club for Growth pointed out that the two Republicans had a nearly idential record on its vote scorecard and said the group didn't anticipate getting involved, either for or against Cornyn.

“While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Senator Cornyn, as witnessed by his 87% lifetime Club for Growth score,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “Our PAC evaluates three factors when looking at races that involve incumbents: 1) the strength of the incumbent’s record; 2) the degree of difference between the incumbent and the challenger on economic issues; and 3) the viability of the challenger. None of those factors weigh against Senator Cornyn, so we do not expect to be involved in the Texas Senate race.”

It's a similar distance that Club for Growth took shortly after the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed McConnell's primary challenger, Matt Bevin. After eviscerating the GOP leader for weeks in fundraising emails and ads, the the Senate Conservatives Fund's move to take on McConnell wasn't a surprise. But Club for Growth, again, took a more measured approach. 

“While we don’t always agree with Mitch McConnell, we appreciate his 84% lifetime score on the Club for Growth’s congressional scorecard, and his steadfast support for First Amendment free speech rights," Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said in October. "We are continuing to monitor the race.” 

The Senate Conservatives Fund says that it also takes candidate quality into consideration when making endorsements, especially against incumbents. 

"We look for candidates who are principled, who have grassroots support, and who are capable of running a winning campaign. We're willing to support good candidates in any race regardless of whether it's against an incumbent Democrat, an incumbent Republican, and in an open seat. What matters most to us is the quality of the candidate," Hoskins told msnbc. "Many Republicans in Washington believe they are entitled to be re-elected over and over again without any opposition, but they're wrong. Primaries are good because they give voters choices and hold incumbents accountable. Change in Washington means changing the people we send there, and sometimes that means changing Republicans."

But the two groups have also differed on the central policy that has driven many of the primary challenges -- defunding Obamacare. With Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz as their champion, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action continued to push for a defund-or-nothing strategy even amid the 16-day government shutdown, and blasted McConnell for backing down. But Club for Growth said it would have supported a one-year delay of the health care law's individual mandate to end the shutdown.

It was the Senate Conservatives Fund's all-or-nothing strategy that has earned the group the ire of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP's Senate campaign arm. After one media firm, Jamestown Associates, did work for the Senate Conservatives Fund, the campaign committe blacklisted it. Two of the Senate Conservatives Fund's endorsements so far -- Matt Bevin in the Kentucky Senate race and Rob Maness over Rep. Bill Cassidy in the race against Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu -- could impact competitive general election races the GOP needs to win to gain back control of the Senate. Club for Growth hasn't endorsed in the race, and Maness lags far behind both Cassidy and Landrieu in fundraising. 

The Senate Conservatives Fund threw its lot behind another primary challenger on Tuesday -- Dr. Milton Wolf, a distant cousin of President Obama, who's running against Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. The group's statement didn't specifically target Roberts, who has been in the Senate since 1996.

"Dr. Milton Wolf is a principled conservative who will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are bankrupting our country. He's not a career politician. He's a doctor who understands exactly why Obamacare must be repealed. Kansas Republicans deserve a real choice this election, and Dr. Wolf gives them a chance to send someone new to Washington who will shake things up and bring about real change."

The two groups agreed on their first primary challenger of the cycle against an incumbent -- state Sen. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi over longtime GOP Sen. Thad Cochran. The 76-year-old didn't confirm until last week he would run again, but both groups had already thrown their weight behind McDaniel and reiterated their backing last week. The ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee has a very poor 68% lifetime score from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.

So if it's simply on vote scores -- one of the largest components of a Club for Growth endorsement -- the group's agreement against Cochran makes sense. But against both McConnell and Cornyn, the Senate Conservatives Fund's opposition appears to be as much about the senators' current rhetoric and actions and place as part of the GOP leadership and establishment as anything. 

During the shutdown, the Senate Conservatives Fund went after Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime earmark opponent who was elected from the House in 2012 with the heavy backing from Club for Growth. The Senate Conservatives Fund blasted Flake for not "stand[ing] up to President Obama and join conservatives in pledging to oppose funding for the implementation of Obamacare" in a radio ad. But Flake has a 100% lifetime score from Club for Growth.