GOP braces for Bannon primary attacks

GOP braces for Bannon primary attacks
© Getty

Republicans are fearful about the damage former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and his allies will inflict on GOP incumbents seeking reelection in the 2018 midterms.

Bannon has been meeting with insurgent conservative candidates and is committed to making Breitbart News, which he returned to run after leaving the White House in August, a major player in the Republican primaries against candidates he views as insufficiently loyal to President Trump.


Bannon is also in discussions with the pro-Trump outside group Great America PAC – which has raised and spent tens of millions of dollars in the last two years — about acting as his political arm in targeting Republicans seeking reelection in both the House and the Senate.

Mainstream Republicans are fretting over the havoc those forces could unleash as they seek to protect their majorities.

They’re worried that money raised by Great America, coupled with potentially significant investments in primary races from the Mercer family, which owns a portion of Breitbart, could sink one or two incumbents in primaries and hobble others enough that they lose winnable general election races to Democrats.

“The most important thing Republicans can do next year is expand our Senate majority by defeating vulnerable Democrats,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock McConnell PAC demands Moore return its money Klobuchar taking over Franken's sexual assault bill MORE (R-Ky.) and aims to reelect incumbent Republicans.

“If we have to divert resources to defeat substandard candidates in GOP primaries, that will obviously make it harder for us to accomplish that goal.”

Breitbart has been running daily stories pumping former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in Alabama, who is leading incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock McConnell PAC demands Moore return its money Graham on Moore: 'We are about to give away a seat' key to Trump's agenda MORE in the GOP primary runoff there to serve the rest of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFederal judge rules Trump defunding sanctuary cities 'unconstitutional on its face' FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Alabama election has GOP racing against the clock MORE’s Senate term.

Bannon has spoken in-person with Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerAnother perfect storm: Why we must act before flood insurance runs dry Senators introduce bipartisan gun background check bill Dem PAC bullish on Senate chances MORE (R) in Nevada. He has also met with former state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the Tea Party favorite in Mississippi, who is expected to jump into the race against Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerUS warship collides with Japanese tug boat FCC votes to limit program funding internet access for low-income communities Senate passes resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training MORE (R).

In Arizona, the patriarch of the Mercer family, billionaire GOP donor Robert Mercer, has poured $300,000 into a group supporting former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) against Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSpokesman: Flake’s vote on tax reform will have nothing to do with Trump Trump slams Flake over hot-mic comments: Senator's career is 'toast' Bannon: McConnell 'picking up his game' because of our 'insurgent movement' MORE (R). Several operatives from Great America PAC have also peeled off to join Ward’s campaign.

Bannon has had several conversations about primaries strategy with GOP operatives at Great America PAC, which counts Trump supporters like former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) as chairmen.

Andrew Surabian, Bannon’s political adviser, left the White House recently to join the group.

A source familiar with Great America’s plans says the conversations with Bannon are only in the preliminary stage but that they’re almost certain to involve the primaries in Alabama, Arizona and Nevada, where incumbent Sens. Strange, Flake and Heller are fighting for their political lives.

Great America is also scouting an opportunity in Tennessee, where Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerBannon: McConnell 'picking up his game' because of our 'insurgent movement' State Dept. spokeswoman acknowledges 'morale issue' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Tenn.) has criticized Trump and has not committed to seeking reelection. There is hope among some Bannon allies that Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump's Twitter lockout raises safeguard concerns Anti-pyramid scheme legislation is necessary to protect consumers from fraud Former Tennessee rep enters race for Corker's Senate seat MORE (R) will run for Corker’s seat, either as a primary challenger or if he steps aside.

“If [GOP incumbents] think they can get away with cheap shots at Trump to score points with the media or with other lawmakers, they’ll quickly learn that there are consequences,” said one operative with knowledge of the group’s deliberations. “That’s the easiest way to get on our radar.”

Strategists with ties to the group concede that Bannon and Great America’s goals will not always align.

Bannon is eager to meet with virtually any challenger looking to take on an incumbent, while some at Great America are hesitant even to get involved in the Nevada race over fears that whichever candidate wins the primary will emerge too damaged for a general election race to defend what’s the most vulnerable Republican-held Senate seat on the ballot.

But for the most part, Bannon and Great America are on the same page and committed to defeating incumbents they believe don’t have Trump’s back — both in the House and in the Senate.

“You have to have people who support the president’s agenda,” said one operative aligned with Great America. “I’ve been trying to elect Republicans my whole life and I won’t just wholesale look to knock them out, but some of these members have just decided that they’re not going to back Trump.”

Some Republicans are frustrated by what they view as Bannon’s indiscriminate approach. Some, like Flake, have been openly hostile to Trump. But supporters of other senators, like Wicker in Mississippi, believe their only crime is running as an incumbent.

“That’s the problem with Bannon’s logic,” said Austin Barbour, a Mississippi-based strategist who managed Wicker’s first Senate campaign in 2008. “They don’t care if you vote with Trump 99.9 percent of the time or 58.9 percent of the time. If they don’t think you’re really with him, they want to beat you.”

Republicans interviewed by The Hill aren’t panicking yet about the primary challengers triumphing over the incumbents. Ward in Arizona, Tarkanian in Nevada and McDaniel in Mississippi have all run before and lost.

Some Republicans noted that Bannon doesn’t always deliver on his threats and that the Mercers have so far only opened their wallets for Ward. They’re more concerned about the chaos these groups could sow in the party.

“They don’t view their success in terms of wins or losses,” said one former hill aide with close ties to GOP leadership. “They’re happy just creating problems for people. It’s a game to them and it’s a disservice to the party. The goal should be to influence policy and not just create confusion and internal strife among Republicans. If I were [Senate Minority Leader] Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJuan Williams: The politics of impeachment Texas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' MORE, I’d be the first to write a check to that super PAC. Republicans should be very concerned.”

But others see the challengers represent a true primary threat to the incumbents. They say they will need money to beat back the challengers and precise political maneuvering to outlast them.

“Certainly they will make it more difficult for Republicans to win in November and hold the majority in 2018,” Barbour said. “That’s politics and Bannon and his groups are free to do that, but at some point you’d hope the Republican National Committee or the White House would step in and say we can’t stand for this anymore.”