Bannon-tied group kicks off brutal GOP primary season

A pro-Trump outside group aligned with Stephen Bannon endorsed three Republicans running for Senate on Wednesday, firing the starting pistol on what's shaping up to be a nasty primary season for the GOP.

The Great America Alliance — an antiestablishment group which counts Bannon’s political adviser Andy Surabian as a strategist — announced it will support West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) and Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnElection Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Lawmakers split over how to expand rural broadband MORE (R-Tenn.) in their bids for Senate.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sources familiar with the decision told The Hill that Bannon, the Breitbart chairman and former White House chief strategist, is asking the candidates he backs to oppose Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress GOP to White House: End summit mystery Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Ky.) as the next majority leader, although it’s unclear if they've all committed to this. Rosendale has said he will support McConnell.

Bannon is also asking candidates to support eliminating the legislative filibuster in the Senate and to back President Trump’s trade and immigration policies.

"Establishment forces on both sides of the aisle in Washington have either been unwilling or unable to effectively advance President Trump's agenda, which is totally unacceptable," said Great America Alliance co-chairman Eric Beach. "The best way to advance the 'America First' movement is to hold elected leaders accountable — get on board and get the job done or be replaced by someone who will."

Bannon has said he intends to support primary challengers running against every Republican incumbent, with the exception of Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz: 'I'm glad' Disney fired James Gunn over 'horrible' tweets Washington needs to end hidden inflation tax on our capital gains GOP tax writer introduces bill to reduce capital gains taxes MORE (R-Texas).

While Bannon and his allies are already tacitly supporting primary challengers to Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Jacky Rosen hits Dean Heller over health care in first negative ad MORE (R-Nev.), the first wave of endorsements focuses on Republicans running for open seats or ones currently held by Democrats.

Morrisey, who is vying for the nomination against Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) for the right to take on Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Pollster: Kavanaugh will get Dem votes Overnight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices MORE (D-W.Va.), made his name spearheading legal challenges against the Obama administration's environmental regulations.

Rosendale, who enters a crowded GOP primary in Montana for the right to challenge Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee MORE (D-Mont.), has crossover appeal to the GOP establishment.

Blackburn, who is running to replace retiring Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia MORE (R-Tenn.), could also attract support from Washington Republicans.

So far, Blackburn has steered clear of the nasty public feud between Corker and President Trump that exploded in recent days and further exposed the deep rift between establishment Republicans and grass-roots conservatives that will play out in primary elections across the country in 2018. 

More endorsements, some for candidates who are challenging incumbent Republicans, are expected in the coming weeks. 

Bannon and his allies are plotting an ambitious primary strategy in which no Republican, except for Cruz, appears safe. Great America Alliance’s allies have said they’re recruiting primary challengers for Sens. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoThe law to protect endangered species in America is working Republican bill aims to deter NATO members from using Russian pipeline Overnight Energy: Fewer than half of school districts test for lead | Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act | FEMA avoids climate change when discussing plan for future storms MORE (R-Wyo.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk Ernst, Fischer to square off for leadership post MORE (R-Neb.) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers eye ban on Chinese surveillance cameras | DOJ walks back link between fraud case, OPM breach | GOP senators question Google on Gmail data | FCC under pressure to delay Sinclair merger review Top Senate Republicans question Google over Gmail data practices MORE (R-Miss.), who have not been openly critical of Trump, among others. 

“They have to understand something — just voting is not good enough,” Bannon said Monday night on Fox News's "Hannity"’ “You have to have a sense of urgency. Nobody's safe. We're coming after all of them. And we're going to win.” 

Republicans have a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate. The election map is favorable for the GOP in 2018, with Democrats defending 25 seats, including 10 in states that Trump carried in the last election.

But Republicans are beginning to worry about the damage their candidates could sustain, as well as the resources they’ll have to spend to make it through the primary season.

There are also fears that the GOP could squander seats that should be easy to defend by nominating weak insurgent candidates who lack general election appeal, as happened in 2010. 

Some Republicans point to former Alabama state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (R), who trounced Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeRoby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support Crowley surprise tops huge night for left MORE (R-Ala.) in a special election primary last month with the help of Bannon and his allies, as a case study here. 

Polls show Moore, who has come under fire for controversial remarks about race and his views on same-sex marriage, has only a single-digit lead in the polls over Democrat Doug Jones in deep red Alabama. 

Bannon insists the so-called Tea Party problem will not be an issue this go-round.

“We're spending a lot of time with the grass-roots organizations to make sure that these candidates are fully vetted,” Bannon told Hannity. “You will see people announce this week with experience in government, you’re going to have some outsiders that are authentic, these people are real. It’s not like 2010. 2010 was the beginning of the Tea Party and it was just getting going. You will see real candidates and they will take on incumbents in every state and the Democrats after that.”

Bannon has also been meeting with donors and claims that his slate of candidates will be able to compete financially with well-funded incumbents. Moore was able to ride grass-roots energy to a victory despite being dramatically outspent by Strange, who benefited from millions of dollars from the Senate Leadership Fund, which is run by allies of McConnell.

“The donors are coming to us because they're tired of having their money burned up by trying to destroy people like Judge Moore,” Bannon said. “It’s a new game in town. We're going to cut off the oxygen to Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell's biggest asset is the money. We're going to make it the biggest liability. We're going after them tooth and nail.”

The Senate Leadership Fund declined to comment for this story. 

But national Republicans are doubtful the Breitbart wing will be able to compete financially and believe their influence in the primaries is being overstated. 

Many Republicans believe Bannon and his allies swooped in late on Moore’s behalf in Alabama and capitalized on a foregone conclusion.

“If you look at Alabama — Bannon came in a few weeks out and held a rally, that’s it,” said one Republican. “There was no ground game, no infrastructure, just the press ready to give him more credit than he deserved.”

Others note that beyond the primary challenges to incumbents, there are candidates who will get support from national Republicans and the Bannon wing alike, such as Rosendale, Blackburn and Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, among others. 

“If you look at the Republican Party as a whole, primaries are not new to anyone,” the Republican said. “After Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorDave Brat's seat moved to 'toss-up' 4 years after upset victory over Eric Cantor The animating forces behind the Democratic Party are true, radical leftists Divided Democrats are in danger MORE, everyone has learned the importance of taking races seriously from day one, and that’s what every incumbent from House to the Senate is doing. Not having a primary in some of these cases would be great, but that’s not the reality of Republican politics.”