President Donald Trump’s closest allies are planning a slate of primary challenges against Republican senators, potentially undermining the party’s prospects in 2018 and further inflaming tensions between GOP leaders and the White House.
The effort is being led by Steve Bannon, Trump’s bomb-throwing former chief strategist, who is launching an all-out war against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment. Bannon has begun holding private meetings with insurgent challengers, vowing his support. He’s coordinating with conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, who is prepared to pour millions of dollars into attacks on GOP incumbents. Bannon has also installed a confidant at an outside group that is expected to target Republican lawmakers and push the Trump agenda.
The activity has alarmed senior Republicans, who worry it will drain millions of dollars from the party’s coffers to take on Democrats in the general election. McConnell has repeatedly expressed concern to the White House about the danger primaries pose to his members, stressing that it could imperil his narrow four-seat majority, according to three people with direct knowledge of the discussions.
“The issue is: Do you invest your time and energy in attacking people who are carrying this president’s water in Congress to the benefit of people who are trying to impeach him? That seems like an incredibly short-sighted strategy,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff.
Bannon is paying little heed to those warnings. On Thursday, he huddled with Danny Tarkanian, an attorney who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), at the Capitol Hill townhouse that serves as a base of operations for Breitbart News, the conservative website that Bannon oversees.
Bannon made it clear during the 30-minute meeting that Tarkanian had his full backing in the race against Heller, according to one person familiar with the conversation. Heller refused to endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Leading the target list is Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken critic of the president who recently published a book lamenting the rise of Trump. Bannon is intent on unseating Flake, and David Bossie, the president’s 2016 deputy campaign manager and the president of the influential conservative group Citizens United, has embarked on an effort to recruit several potential primary challengers, including former Rep. Matt Salmon. The former congressman, however, has expressed reluctance to enter the contest.
The anti-incumbent effort could dramatically reshape the 2018 primary landscape if it materializes. It would pit a group of pro-Trump primary challengers against sitting lawmakers who are perceived as more mainstream.
Two other senators could come under attack. Behind the scenes, Bannon has proposed the possibility of targeting Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, and those close to the former Trump chief strategist are talking about the prospect of a challenge to Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.
Corker had long been considered a Trump ally and had been in the mix to become secretary of state, but has since angered the president’s supporters with recent comments in which he questioned Trump’s competence. Shortly after Bannon left the White House and returned to Breitbart last month, the site published a story promoting a potential Corker challenger, state Sen. Mark Green. The site has also hyped the possibility that state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a tea party favorite, will take on Wicker.
Bannon is firing his opening shot in the Alabama Senate special election, squaring off against McConnell in a race the Senate leader and his allies have spent millions of dollars to win.
While Bannon is behind controversial former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, McConnell has gone all in for Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed early this year to temporarily fill the seat after Jeff Sessions became attorney general. Speaking to prominent GOP activists at a Conservative Action Project meeting and on a Judicial Watch conference call recently, Bannon portrayed the Sept. 26 primary as a defining battle between the conservative base and GOP establishment.
Trump endorsed Strange before the first round of voting in mid-August but has since done little to promote him. Recent polling has shown Moore with a significant lead.
A Strange loss would be an embarrassment for McConnell and open the floodgates for other GOP primary challenges, Bannon has argued. On Thursday, Bannon and Bossie met separately with Moore in Washington.
It’s not the first time Bannon has gone after the GOP establishment in Senate primaries. During the 2014 midterms, Breitbart, under Bannon’s leadership, promoted several insurgent challengers, including physician Milton Wolf in Kansas and former state Rep. Joe Carr in Tennessee. None of the Breitbart-backed candidates won, but the effort sapped the party leadership of millions of dollars.
This time around, Bannon is almost certain to rely on funding from Mercer, a reclusive hedge fund manager who has long funded his political projects. After exiting the White House, Bannon left Washington for Long Island, New York, where he spent five days meeting with the billionaire.
Mercer, who was one of Trump’s top donors during the 2016 campaign, has expressed a desire to go after sitting GOP lawmakers, according to three people with direct knowledge of his thinking. He has already donated $300,000 to an anti-Flake super PAC and has indicated that he’s interested in giving more to unseat the senator.
Bannon has taken preliminary steps to establish a political structure that could be used in 2018 races. It was recently announced that his political adviser, Andrew Surabian, was leaving the White House to take a job at Great America Alliance, a pro-Trump outside group.
“I don’t think anyone should be surprised at primary challenges in GOP Senate races, especially against those senators that have appeared to be less than helpful to the Trump agenda. And I think those primary challengers will be well funded,” said Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist who has written for Breitbart. “It’s a natural reaction by the base to what they’ve perceived as a perhaps intentional inability to pass any Trump agenda items.”
GOP leaders are racing to protect their lawmakers. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) recently organized a pair of fundraisers in his home state to jointly benefit Heller and Flake — they were canceled after Hurricane Harvey but are expected to be rescheduled. One was set to be at the Dallas home of billionaire Robert Rowling, who owns Omni Hotels and Gold’s Gym. It offered a reception and photo op and asked for contributions up to $44,700, according to an invitation.
Heller has taken steps to repair his relationship with the White House. After Trump delivered a speech before the American Legion in Reno in which he called for national unity, the senator called the president and complimented him on his remarks, according to one person familiar with the exchange. After initially attacking the Trump-led effort to repeal Obamacare, Heller ultimately backed legislation to reverse the law.
There are indications the offensive has paid off. On Friday evening, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, Trump’s handpicked Republican National Committee finance chairman, gave Heller a full-throated endorsement during a speech at a Nevada Republican Party fundraising dinner.
But Tarkanian is plowing ahead. He said that Trump supporters in Nevada felt betrayed by Heller and have been flocking to his campaign.
“I got in the race with the hope that there would be enthusiasm for my candidacy, and it’s far exceeded my hope,” Tarkanian said. “There’s a lot of frustration with Dean Heller.”
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