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 McConnellOvernight Health Care: Fireworks on health care expected at Dem debate | Trump FDA pick dodges on vaping ban | Trump to host meeting on youth vaping Friday | AMA calls for immediate vaping ban GOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade 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 BrownHillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell 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 CochranMike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid Biden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe MORE (R-Miss.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Pressure builds on Pompeo as impeachment inquiry charges ahead GOP lawmakers fear Trump becoming too consumed by impeachment fight MORE (R-Kan.) defeated conservative challengers, and GOP leaders helped clear the field for Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Tariffs threaten 1.5M jobs: Study This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE (R) to take on Democrat Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy 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 YoungThe Hill's Morning Report - Wild Wednesday: Sondland testimony, Dem debate take center stage Tester: Our forefathers would not have tolerated Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing 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 McCaskillMSNBC's McCaskill: Trump used 'his fat thumbs' to try to intimidate Yovanovitch GOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' Iranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts MORE (D), but her decision to pull her endorsement of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate 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 BaldwinIt's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote MORE (D) in the general election.

The Club for Growth is eyeing the GOP race to take on Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPolitical purity tests are for losers Former coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda 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 HatchKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals 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 FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R), who was one of Trump’s biggest critics in the Senate during the 2016 presidential race. Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarSen. John Kennedy: Americans 'deserve some answers' on Epstein's death Gosar leaves message in tweets: 'Epstein didn't kill himself' Omar comes under scrutiny for 'present' vote on Armenian genocide 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 WickerHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Senators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal 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.