Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups

Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Green New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire MORE (R-Ky.) and conservative groups are headed toward a showdown over GOP primaries in 2018.

McConnell has voiced confidence that Republicans will nominate “electable” candidates as they seek to grow their narrow majority during an election cycle in which Democrats will be defending 23 seats to just eight for the GOP.

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The majority leader is signaling to conservative groups that he’ll play a big role in determining whom Republicans nominate to take on vulnerable Democrats in states from Florida to Montana.

“We intend to play in primaries if there’s a clear choice between someone who can win in November and someone who can’t,” McConnell said at an April 7 press conference.

Conservative groups that have frequently clashed with McConnell and the GOP establishment say they intend to back candidates that could move the party to the right.

“We’re looking for viable conservative candidates, and our supporters don’t care whether the GOP establishment ultimately supports them or not,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is backing Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel as the Republican candidate against Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownHigh stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks Pollster says current 2020 surveys like picking best picture Oscar before movies come out Shep Smith: Signing funding bill is a 'loss' for Trump no matter how it's packaged MORE (D).

“Sometimes the establishment comes around to support our candidates, and sometimes they don’t. But our criteria won’t change.”

Republicans’ hopes of winning the Senate majority in 2010 and 2012 were thwarted in part by some weak candidates who defeated rivals from the GOP establishment in party primaries.

In 2014, McConnell, asked about Tea Party challengers, declared to The New York Times that “we are going to crush them everywhere.”

The GOP largely did in that cycle, winning back the Senate after Sens. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy MORE (R-Miss.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsGOP senators offer praise for Klobuchar: 'She’s the whole package' The Hill's Morning Report - House Dems prepare to swamp Trump with investigations The Hill's Morning Report — Will Ralph Northam survive? MORE (R-Kan.) defeated conservative challengers, and GOP leaders helped clear the field for Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia Dems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt Lawmakers eager for 5G breakthrough MORE (R) to take on Democrat Mark UdallMark Emery UdallGardner gets latest Democratic challenge from former state senator Setting the record straight about No Labels Trump calls Kavanaugh accusations ‘totally political’ MORE in Colorado.

“The idea, I always remind people, is to win the election, and frequently, the primary in 2010 and 2012 dictated the outcome in November,” McConnell said at his press conference earlier this month.

“We didn’t let that happen again in 2014 and we came to the majority. We only had one episode in 2016, in Indiana,” he added, referring to the primary between conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R), whom the Club for Growth backed, and Rep. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungIndiana gets first national park Ivanka Trump to meet with GOP senators to discuss paid family leave legislation Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal MORE (R), whom the establishment backed.

Young won the primary and a competitive election in the fall against former Sen. Evan Bayh (D).

“We nominated the right candidate, and he won,” McConnell said.

BuzzFeed reported earlier this year that a senior White House adviser told donors that “the days of McConnell picking Republican nominees in Senate races is over.”

But the White House later pushed back against the report, and McConnell has expressed confidence that the White House will take a back seat willingly.

“I think it’s safe to say that we will be looking for, in these non-incumbent races, the most electable candidates possible, and I think the administration will defer to our judgment on Senate races,” McConnell said.

A few battles are already shaping up in 2018.

In Ohio, it is unclear whether the GOP establishment will back Mandel, who lost to Brown in 2012.

The Club for Growth is backing Mandel. In 2010, it helped defeat former Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), one of McConnell’s best friends, in a GOP primary.

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, has amassed $6.3 million in campaign funds and might be seen as a stronger candidate by Washington Republicans.

“We’re supporting Josh Mandel in Ohio. I think the establishment would probably prefer Pat Tiberi, but any competent Republican consultant would strongly advise Tiberi not to run,” said Andrew Roth, vice president for government affairs at the Club for Growth. “The establishment should like Mandel.

In Missouri, Rep. Ann Wagner (R) appears to be the early establishment favorite to take on Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMcCaskill: Lindsey Graham 'has lost his mind' Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government MORE (D), but her decision to pull her endorsement of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE last year could leave her open to attack.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Holly may challenge her, although he just won his office, which makes the chances less likely.

In Wisconsin, the Senate GOP primary has several potential candidates in the mix.

Nicole Schneider, who could fund her own campaign; businessman Eric Hovde; Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson; and state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who was honored last year for her work by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Counsel, could face Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDems offer smaller step toward ‘Medicare for all' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Powerful House committee turns to drug pricing | Utah governor defies voters on Medicaid expansion | Dems want answers on controversial new opioid Why does the bankruptcy code discriminate against disabled veterans? MORE (D) in the general election.

The Club for Growth is eyeing the GOP race to take on Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate Senate poised to confirm Trump’s attorney general pick MORE (D-W.Va.).

“Conservatives like the attorney general, Patrick Morrisey. The establishment likes the congressman, [Rep.] Evan Jenkins,” said Roth.

A few sitting Republican senators could face challengers. 

In Utah, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOrrin Hatch Foundation seeking million in taxpayer money to fund new center in his honor Mitch McConnell has shown the nation his version of power grab Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Utah Senate votes to scale back Medicaid expansion | Virginia abortion bill reignites debate | Grassley invites drug execs to testify | Conservative groups push back on e-cig crackdown MORE (R) has declared he will run for his eighth term despite promising in 2012 that he would retire next year.

In Arizona, Kelli Ward plans to challenge Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R), who was one of Trump’s biggest critics in the Senate during the 2016 presidential race. Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarHouse passes bill expressing support for NATO McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader On The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown MORE (R-Ariz.) has criticized Flake for supporting the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill but has decided not to challenge him.

In Alabama, Sen. Luther Strange (R), who until recently was the state’s attorney general, has to answer questions about former Gov. Robert Bentley’s decision to appoint him in the midst of an investigation of the governor. A Republican state representative has complained about the appearance of collusion after Strange asked for the suspension of an impeachment probe before Bentley chose him for the Senate.

On Tuesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) set a special primary for Strange’s seat on Aug. 15.

Chris McDaniel, who nearly ousted Cochran in 2014, may challenge Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTrump signs executive order to boost AI technology Hillicon Valley: Feds looking into Bezos claims about National Enquirer | Amazon reconsidering New York City HQ2 move | Sprint sues AT&T over 5G marketing claims Senate to hold hearing on potential privacy bill MORE (R-Miss.) in 2018, but it’s probably an uphill battle.

“Just because we haven’t seen a Republican Senate incumbent go down in a primary in the last couple cycles doesn’t mean Republican primary voters will all of a sudden love the party’s leadership,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.