GOP Senate hopefuls reluctant to back McConnell as leader

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has become a flashpoint for Republicans running for Senate in 2018. 

The Hill asked nearly two dozen Senate candidates this week if they would support McConnell as leader if elected. Not one campaign said outright that they would support him, although two candidates appear to have expressed support in the past.

Several candidates declared their opposition to McConnell and attacked their GOP primary opponents for not taking a stance on the question. Other candidates deflected, or spoke on background about the bind they’re in over the question of McConnell’s leadership. Most candidates were eager to avoid the question entirely, and ignored multiple requests for comment.

The candidate survey underscores the tricky balancing act facing Republican Senate candidates in 2018, which is shaping up to be a proxy war between the party establishment and its grass-roots base.

On one side is McConnell and his deep ties to the national party’s donor network, a prized asset for any candidate facing a tough primary. On the other side is Breitbart chairman and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the anti-establishment provocateur with an influential news outlet who is asking candidates to oppose the majority leader.

“Ten years ago when you ran campaigns, especially after 9/11, it was all about leadership. You could talk about your role in Congress in making things better,” one top aide to a GOP Senate campaign told The Hill. “Now Republican voters want to burn the place down, so you have more of a tightrope.” 

In primary races in Ohio and Missouri, candidates with crossover appeal between the grass roots and the establishment have both declined to endorse McConnell, but are under fire from their Republican opponents nonetheless.

GOP Senate hopeful Mike Gibbons is calling on Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, the favorite in the race, to sign his petition demanding that McConnell retire.

Mandel, who received millions of dollars in outside support from the McConnell-aligned group American Crossroads GPS for his failed 2012 bid, ducked the question at a press conference this week and told reporters he’d address it when elected.

“Just like we would expect from the career politician that he is, Josh is refusing to take a position,” Gibbons said in a statement to The Hill.

Mandel’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

In Missouri, Austin Petersen, who is running against state Attorney General Josh Hawley, the favorite, is similarly on the attack. Hawley has dodged the question of whether he would support McConnell, even as GOP strategist Karl Rove publicly boasts about how he and McConnell recruited Hawley to get into the race.

“Hawley refuses to say whether he’ll support him,” Petersen told The Hill. “That’s playing politics. I said two months ago I wouldn’t support McConnell and I had everything to lose when I did that.”

Hawley’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In Arizona and Nevada, insurgent candidates Kelli Ward and Danny Tarkanian are demanding Republicans move on from McConnell as they seek to upset incumbent GOP Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Dean Heller (Nev.), respectively.

So too is Alabama’s Roy Moore, who won his September primary runoff against incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) even after the Senate Leadership Fund — another McConnell-aligned group — poured millions of dollars into the race to oppose Moore.

Wisconsin’s Kevin Nicholson and Pennsylvania’s Jeff Bartos both told The Hill it might be time for new leadership in the Senate. A spokesperson for Nicholson said, “he’s prepared to support new leadership because of the Senate’s failure to pass a conservative agenda,” while Bartos said he’d tie his vote to whether McConnell could “deliver for the people who support the president’s agenda.” 

There are a few exceptions.

West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins’s campaign told Politico in August that he supports McConnell as leader, while an aide to Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale told the outlet that McConnell’s status as leader “is not in question.” Neither responded to The Hill’s inquiries.

Rosendale has the backing of Bannon’s allied super PAC. He recently tweeted a picture of himself with Bannon and called his campaign a bid against the “D.C. status quo.”

Rosendale’s top opponent, businessman and veteran Troy Downing, had no comment for The Hill on McConnell. Montana state Sen. Al Olszewski said he would oppose McConnell, while former state Supreme Court judge Russell Fagg said he admires McConnell but “can not be a guaranteed vote to any leader in advance.”

Jenkins’s opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, also has the backing of the Bannon-aligned PAC, but did not respond to inquiries. 

Sitting Republican lawmakers running for Senate were mum on the issue. Reps. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) Luke Messer (Ind.) and Lou Barletta (Penn.) did not answer, while Rep. Todd Rokita (Ind.) responded with an attack against his Democratic opponent. 

McConnell’s allies say there is no need for prospective senators to weigh in on hypothetical leadership votes and believe there is more support for the majority leader than is being publicized by the candidates.

They don’t think primary voters care about who the candidates might support for majority leader and are frustrated by what they view as Bannon needlessly sowing division within Republican ranks. Bannon has vowed to put up primary challengers to every incumbent running for reelection, with the exception of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Rove, who oversees the powerful Senate Leadership Fund that seeks to reelect incumbents, attacked Bannon as a “failed presidential adviser and alt-right sympathizer.”

Rove accused Bannon of launching a “jihad against incumbent Republicans” and singled out Ward and Tarkanian as surefire general election losers and part of Bannon’s “collection of misfits and ne’er-do-wells.”

Bannon’s critics say he is getting too much credit for swooping in late in Alabama, where they say Moore was already headed for certain victory over Strange, the McConnell-backed candidate.

They view Bannon’s efforts as a money-making scheme to raise his profile and note that the incumbents he plans to primary have voted with Trump more than 90 percent of the time.

“If you’re a candidate wrapping yourself around an axle of who you’ll support in a leadership election that presumes you’ve already won a Senate seat, you’re doing it wrong,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. 

“Voters don’t have an ounce of interest in who wins a prospective leadership race, they care about jobs. This is nothing more than a vanity project for Steve Bannon and, like all vanity projects, it will go about as far as you can throw a thousand-pound stone. Bannon doesn’t have a movement behind him. The president does and without President Trump, Bannon is a nobody.”

Still, there is roiling anger at McConnell in some conservative quarters and those looking to harness that anti-establishment energy insist that running against the majority leader will be a winning issue for GOP primary candidates.

“Of course primary voters care about leadership elections,” said Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, which opposes McConnell. “They’ve seen failed leadership in the Senate for years and want to see the member they vote for be able to enact the agenda they ran on.”

The attacks between the two wings of the party are heating up and becoming increasingly personal.

“In 2018 we ought to revisit this question and find out if these people are still happy to be associated with Bannon,” said Holmes. “When you’re facing voters, I’d take one of the most successful majority leaders in history over a white supremacist any day.” 

Andy Surabian, an adviser to Bannon, fired back.

“No amount of smearing can change the fact that not a single U.S. Senate candidate was willing to go on the record and say that they supported Mitch McConnell for Majority Leader,” he said. “Everyone can see right through the clearly desperate, unfounded and pathetic attacks coming from McConnell Incorporated.”

Tags Dean Heller Jeff Flake Lou Barletta Luther Strange Marsha Blackburn Mitch McConnell Ted Cruz

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