GOP senators call on Bannon, Trump to lay off incumbents
Top Senate Republicans are firing back at Stephen Bannon amid reports that he is eyeing primary challenges to GOP incumbents who he believes haven’t been supportive of President Trump, calling on both the president and his ousted chief strategist to leave elected Republicans alone.
“I wish they would focus on Democrats instead of Republicans,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters when asked about Bannon.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, added that the potential primary threats could make it harder for Republicans to hold onto their thin 52-seat majority despite a favorable map in the 2018 midterm elections.
“It does [make it harder]. And it’s not particularly productive. … We ought to stay focused on the task at hand,” he told reporters.
Sources told CNN and Politico that Bannon and his allies are actively preparing for Republican primary challenges to several sitting senators, including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Bannon, who returned to leading Breitbart News after exiting the White House last month, has signaled for months that he is willing to challenge GOP incumbents and punish congressional leadership for not being supportive of Trump’s agenda.
And the president, who recently cut a budget deal with Democratic leadership, has frequently lashed out publicly at GOP senators, including Flake, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Cornyn added that Trump and his allies would be “well-advised to focus on growing our number of Republicans in the Senate rather than diminishing it.”
“The president’s going to need as many friendly faces around here as he can get in order to get things done,” he said. “I realize that bipartisanship is important, but he shouldn’t mistake a smile for support when it really counts.”
The threat of intraparty fighting has frustrated congressional leaders, who are eager to avoid a repeat of 2010 and 2012, when some weak candidates defeated rivals from the GOP establishment in party primaries only to lose general elections.
McConnell has pledged that he and allied outside groups will spend money to help protect GOP incumbents running for reelection.
“We intend to play in primaries if there’s a clear choice between someone who can win in November and someone who can’t,” the majority leader said earlier this year.
Republicans face a largely favorable map heading into 2018, with Democrats defending roughly two dozen seats, including 10 in states Trump won in last year’s presidential election.
Flake and Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.) are the two Republican senators widely considered most vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Corker and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have yet to commit to running for reelection next year, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is eyeing a 2018 gubernatorial bid.
Corker told reporters he has “no reason to believe” the administration would encourage a GOP primary challenger against him.
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