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 McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal 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 BrownOvernight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw Chamber of Commerce, banking industry groups call on Senate to pass corporate diversity bill 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 CochranEspy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid MORE (R-Miss.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Virus bill unlikely to pass this week MORE (R-Kan.) defeated conservative challengers, and GOP leaders helped clear the field for Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerCoronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters The US military has options against China MORE (R) to take on Democrat Mark UdallMark Emery UdallThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic presidential race comes into sharp focus Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump 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 YoungRepublicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Senate GOP posts M quarter haul as candidates, Trump struggle A renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government 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 McCaskillDemocratic-linked group runs ads in Kansas GOP Senate primary Trump mocked for low attendance at rally Missouri county issues travel advisory for Lake of the Ozarks after Memorial Day parties MORE (D), but her decision to pull her endorsement of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran 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 BaldwinDemocrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Biden: I'll have a running mate picked next week MORE (D) in the general election.

The Club for Growth is eyeing the GOP race to take on Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic 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 HatchSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Trump awards medal of freedom to former congressman, Olympian Jim Ryun 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 FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (R), who was one of Trump’s biggest critics in the Senate during the 2016 presidential race. Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarArizona Rep. Paul Gosar wins GOP primary  Trade negotiations mustn't short-circuit domestic debate House Republicans urge White House to support TSA giving travelers temperature checks 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 WickerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers zero in on Twitter after massive hack | US, UK, Canada allege Russian hackers targeted COVID-19 vaccine researchers | Top EU court rules data transfer deal with the US is illegal Lawmakers zero in on Twitter following massive hack 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.