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 BlackburnThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world Kavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates MORE (R-Tenn.) in their bids for Senate.

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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 McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump 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 CruzSinger Leon Bridges to join Willie Nelson in performing at O’Rourke rally Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Poll: Beto O'Rourke leads Cruz by 2 points in Texas Senate race MORE (R-Texas).

While Bannon and his allies are already tacitly supporting primary challengers to Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Key GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Gillibrand: Kavanaugh accuser shouldn't participate in 'sham' hearing MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Trump to fundraise for Heller, Tarkanian in Nevada The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly 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) ManchinThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world 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) TesterTrump Jr. campaign event looks for new venue after Montana restaurant declines to host CBS Poll: Missouri, Montana Senate races in dead heats Dems play waiting game with Collins and Murkowski MORE (D-Mont.), has crossover appeal to the GOP establishment.

Blackburn, who is running to replace retiring Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips Corker GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' Grassley willing to send staff to California to speak with Kavanaugh accuser Corker blasts Trump's 'ready, fire, aim' trade policy 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 BarrassoTrump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Push to change wildlife act sparks lobbying blitz House and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill MORE (R-Wyo.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerEPA signs off on rule exempting farmers from reporting emissions GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk MORE (R-Neb.) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTrump cancels Mississippi rally due to hurricane Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke GOP senators introduce bill to preserve ObamaCare's pre-existing conditions protections 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 StrangeAnn Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Mulvaney: Trump regularly asks why Roy Moore lost The Hill's Morning Report — General election season underway with marquee Senate races set 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 CantorFake political signs target Democrat in Virginia Hillicon Valley: GOP leader wants Twitter CEO to testify on bias claims | Sinclair beefs up lobbying during merger fight | Facebook users experience brief outage | South Korea eyes new taxes on tech Sinclair hired GOP lobbyists after FCC cracked down on proposed Tribune merger 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.”