BY ALEXANDER BOLTON – 10/18/17 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Republicans say they will fight back vigorously against former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s efforts to knock off GOP incumbents in primaries next year.
They hope that President Trump will have their backs, but they’re not counting on it.
GOP leaders are urging their colleagues to put laser-like focus on their home states and constituents so even if Trump abandons or criticizes them ahead of the midterm elections, they’ll still be in a position to win.
“My experience is you can’t depend on anybody else other than yourself as a candidate to work hard and win an election. If somebody else decides to help you, that’s gravy, but I wouldn’t depend on it,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn(Texas).
Bannon has threatened to back primary challengers against as many as six Senate Republican incumbents facing voters in 2018.
He was scheduled to travel to Arizona Tuesday to attend the campaign kick-off rally for former state legislator Kelli Ward, who is challenging Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) next year.
Senate Republicans are publicly and privately calling on Bannon to step back.
“I think he’s going to back off on that. He certainly should,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the Republicans Bannon hopes to knock off next year.
“He’s a smart guy, and he’s going to realize that’s unfruitful. Where he ought to be spending his time is going after those who are screwing up the country all these years, and they don’t happen to be Republicans,” the 83-year-old senator added.
Hatch, who has yet to announce whether he’s running for reelection, says he hopes Trump will endorse him if he decides to pursue an eighth term.
“I like Trump. I endorsed him,” Hatch said. “I think he’ll endorse me.”
He noted that, along with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), he was one of the first Senate Republicans to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential race.
Trump called Hatch two weeks ago to ask him to run again, according to an aide familiar with the conversation. When he faced a contested primary in 2012, Hatch indicated his seventh term would be his last.
Other Republicans are pushing back against Bannon with tougher language.
Letting out a groan of frustration, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a swing vote in the upcoming tax-reform debate, waved her hand dismissively and said, “I think he should stay out.”
A Republican senator who is not up for reelection next year called Bannon’s maneuvering “terribly counterproductive” and grumbled, “I don’t think much of it.”
Bannon didn’t comment for this article.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday vowed to back incumbents in 2018.
“We had an experience in 2010 and 2012 nominating candidates in primaries who couldn’t win the general election,” he said, citing past conservative challengers who defeated candidates backed by the party leadership only to lose to Democrats on Election Day.
One famous instance was in 2012 when conservative candidate Richard Mourdock beat longtime GOP incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) before losing what was thought to be a safe Republican seat to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
“Our strategy going forward is to protect our incumbents and to help people get nominated who can actually win elections,” McConnell told reporters after meeting with colleagues over lunch.
It was a signal to colleagues that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to McConnell, would pour money into primaries next year if necessary to protect incumbents.
“The message is that [McConnell is] going to be there and we’re going to be there to back incumbents and candidates that we think are electable,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership.
Thune said he expects the NRSC will spend resources in primaries to defend incumbents.
“We’re going to do everything we can to grow our majority,” he added.
The Senate Leadership Fund spent more than $10 million to back Sen. Luther Strange (R), who lost in Alabama’s Senate Republican primary last month to Judge Roy Moore, an outspoken conservative whom Bannon backed.
The NRSC spent about $360,000 in coordinated expenditures to help Strange before the Alabama runoff election.
The committee’s spending on Senate GOP primaries next year will depend on state-by-state coordination limits and how much traction a conservative challenger may be gaining against an incumbent, said a GOP strategist familiar with internal discussions about the 2018 races.
Senate Republicans say they hope McConnell can persuade Trump, with whom he has had a rocky relationship this year, to pressure Bannon to back off loyal incumbents such as Senate Republican Policy Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who are both up for reelection.
Trump acknowledged McConnell’s concerns at a joint press conference with the GOP leader Monday and hinted that he may step in.
“Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they’re great people,” Trump said Monday of some of the GOP lawmakers in Bannon’s sights.
Senate GOP leaders argue it would be smart for Trump to support the incumbents he will need to vote for tax reform and other items on his agenda.
“I hope he will; I think he will,” Thune said. “They’re the kind of people he’ll need to get his agenda through.”
Barrasso and Fischer, two Republicans on Bannon’s target list, say they will focus on doing their jobs and serving their constituents. Neither said whether they would seek an endorsement from Trump.
“People in Wyoming elected me to do a job and I’m going to continue to do that,” said Barrasso. “I’m focused on the lives of the people of Wyoming and tax reform is an important part of that.”
Fischer said, “I’m honored to serve the people of Nebraska and I’m very fortunate to enjoy a lot of support in the state.”
“I work really well with the president, and my office works really well with the administration, and I expect that to continue,” she added. “I just hope we can continue a good working relationship, because we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done.”