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Senate GOP prepares for a war with Bannon

Senate Republicans say they will fight back vigorously against former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s efforts to knock off GOP incumbents in primaries next year.

They hope that President Trump will have their backs, but they’re not counting on it.

GOP leaders are urging their colleagues to put laser-like focus on their home states and constituents so even if Trump abandons or criticizes them ahead of the midterm elections, they’ll still be in a position to win.

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“My experience is you can’t depend on anybody else other than yourself as a candidate to work hard and win an election. If somebody else decides to help you, that’s gravy, but I wouldn’t depend on it,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Trump's shortlist for attorney general takes shape Beto lost but Texas Democrats have a lot to celebrate MORE (Texas).

Bannon has threatened to back primary challengers against as many as six Senate Republican incumbents facing voters in 2018.

He was scheduled to travel to Arizona Tuesday to attend the campaign kick-off rally for former state legislator Kelli Ward, who is challenging Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSinema defeats McSally in Arizona Senate race Scott to attend new member orientation amid recount Scarborough: Trump throwing doubt into elections is ‘action of a tyrant’ MORE (R-Ariz.) next year.

Senate Republicans are publicly and privately calling on Bannon to step back.

“I think he’s going to back off on that. He certainly should,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Trump to award Medal of Freedom to Babe Ruth, Elvis, Scalia, Hatch How much power do states have? Supreme Court holds the answer MORE (R-Utah), one of the Republicans Bannon hopes to knock off next year.

“He’s a smart guy, and he’s going to realize that’s unfruitful. Where he ought to be spending his time is going after those who are screwing up the country all these years, and they don’t happen to be Republicans,” the 83-year-old senator added.

Hatch, who has yet to announce whether he’s running for reelection, says he hopes Trump will endorse him if he decides to pursue an eighth term.

“I like Trump. I endorsed him,” Hatch said. “I think he’ll endorse me.”

He noted that, along with then-Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report Acting AG will meet with DOJ ethics officials to discuss possible recusal: reports Swalwell calls acting AG an 'assassin' hired to 'take out' Mueller probe MORE (R-Ala.), he was one of the first Senate Republicans to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential race.

Trump called Hatch two weeks ago to ask him to run again, according to an aide familiar with the conversation. When he faced a contested primary in 2012, Hatch indicated his seventh term would be his last.

Other Republicans are pushing back against Bannon with tougher language. 

Letting out a groan of frustration, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump and Pelosi set to collide as Democrats celebrate their power Poll: Palin unpopular in Alaska following jab at Murkowski Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign MORE (R-Alaska), a swing vote in the upcoming tax-reform debate, waved her hand dismissively and said, “I think he should stay out.”

A Republican senator who is not up for reelection next year called Bannon’s maneuvering “terribly counterproductive” and grumbled, “I don’t think much of it.”

Bannon didn’t comment for this article.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPress: Trumpism takes a thumping The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Trump says Florida races should be called for GOP | Latest on California wildfires | Congress set for dramatic lame duck Congress braces for high-drama lame duck MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday vowed to back incumbents in 2018.

“We had an experience in 2010 and 2012 nominating candidates in primaries who couldn’t win the general election,” he said, citing past conservative challengers who defeated candidates backed by the party leadership only to lose to Democrats on Election Day.

One famous instance was in 2012 when conservative candidate Richard Mourdock beat longtime GOP incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) before losing what was thought to be a safe Republican seat to Democrat Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyThe Memo: Dem hopes for 2020 grow in midterms afterglow Schumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems MORE.

“Our strategy going forward is to protect our incumbents and to help people get nominated who can actually win elections,” McConnell told reporters after meeting with colleagues over lunch.

It was a signal to colleagues that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to McConnell, would pour money into primaries next year if necessary to protect incumbents.

“The message is that [McConnell is] going to be there and we’re going to be there to back incumbents and candidates that we think are electable,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Congress should pass bill to prevent stacked taxation of digital purchases GOP lawmakers condemn attempted attacks on Democrats MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership.

Thune said he expects the NRSC will spend resources in primaries to defend incumbents.

“We’re going to do everything we can to grow our majority,” he added.

The Senate Leadership Fund spent more than $10 million to back Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeTrump: 'I could pick a woman,' and she could be accused of misconduct Ann Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Mulvaney: Trump regularly asks why Roy Moore lost MORE (R), who lost in Alabama’s Senate Republican primary last month to Judge Roy Moore, an outspoken conservative whom Bannon backed.

The NRSC spent about $360,000 in coordinated expenditures to help Strange before the Alabama runoff election.

The committee’s spending on Senate GOP primaries next year will depend on state-by-state coordination limits and how much traction a conservative challenger may be gaining against an incumbent, said a GOP strategist familiar with internal discussions about the 2018 races.

Senate Republicans say they hope McConnell can persuade Trump, with whom he has had a rocky relationship this year, to pressure Bannon to back off loyal incumbents such as Senate Republican Policy Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy: US, Canada react negatively to Keystone pipeline block | Trump calls ruling a 'disgrace' | Interior officers nabbed 4,000 immigrants crossing US-Mexico border GOP nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally GOP Sen. Barrasso wins second full term in Wyoming MORE (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerGOP's Fischer wins second term as Nebraska senator Cook Political Report shifts three Senate races toward Republicans Kavanaugh fight puts Senate on edge of precipice MORE (R-Neb.), who are both up for reelection.

Trump acknowledged McConnell’s concerns at a joint press conference with the GOP leader Monday and hinted that he may step in.

“Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they’re great people,” Trump said Monday of some of the GOP lawmakers in Bannon’s sights.

Senate GOP leaders argue it would be smart for Trump to support the incumbents he will need to vote for tax reform and other items on his agenda.

“I hope he will; I think he will,” Thune said. “They’re the kind of people he’ll need to get his agenda through.”

Barrasso and Fischer, two Republicans on Bannon’s target list, say they will focus on doing their jobs and serving their constituents. Neither said whether they would seek an endorsement from Trump.

“People in Wyoming elected me to do a job and I’m going to continue to do that,” said Barrasso. “I’m focused on the lives of the people of Wyoming and tax reform is an important part of that.”

Fischer said, “I’m honored to serve the people of Nebraska and I’m very fortunate to enjoy a lot of support in the state.”

“I work really well with the president, and my office works really well with the administration, and I expect that to continue,” she added. “I just hope we can continue a good working relationship, because we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done.”