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 McConnellMcConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime 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 BrownThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment On The Money: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency | Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing | Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei 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 CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE (R-Miss.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Pompeo on Senate run: 'I always leave open the possibility that something will change' CNN's Cuomo spars with Kris Kobach over whether Trump's tweet was racist MORE (R-Kan.) defeated conservative challengers, and GOP leaders helped clear the field for Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout MORE (R) to take on Democrat Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocrats hope some presidential candidates drop out — and run for Senate  Denver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' Gardner gets latest Democratic challenge from former state senator 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 YoungHouse votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout GOP chairman introduces bill to force 'comprehensive review' of US-Saudi relationship 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 McCaskillTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Feds allow campaigns to accept discounted cybersecurity services GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE (D), but her decision to pull her endorsement of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis 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 BaldwinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment MORE (D) in the general election.

The Club for Growth is eyeing the GOP race to take on Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Kentucky Democrat says primary challenge to McGrath 'might be helpful' 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 HatchTrump to award racing legend Roger Penske with Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators 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 FlakeFlake urges Republicans to condemn 'vile and offensive' Trump tweets Flake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers MORE (R), who was one of Trump’s biggest critics in the Senate during the 2016 presidential race. Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarThe 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Conservatives ask Barr to lay out Trump's rationale for census question House sends Trump border aid bill after Pelosi caves to pressure from moderates 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 nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand FAA nominee advances to full Senate vote Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown 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.