Conservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries

Senate Republicans are facing a potential intraparty brawl as they fight to hold on to the chamber next year.

Republicans are defending 22 seats in 2020, mostly in deep-red states, limiting Democrats’ pickup opportunities and increasing the odds of the GOP keeping the Senate.

But nasty primary fights brewing in a handful of key states could threaten to throw a curveball into the Republican strategy, potentially setting the party up for a repeat of previous cycles when conservatives caused headaches by defeating more mainstream GOP candidates, only to lose to Democrats in November.

ADVERTISEMENT

Three races have jumped into the spotlight as looming problem areas for Republicans: In Alabama and Kansas, where conservatives Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreSessions goes after Tuberville's coaching record in challenging him to debate The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Sessions fires back at Trump over recusal: 'I did my duty & you're damn fortunate I did" MORE and Kris Kobach, respectively, are flirting with Senate bids, and in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP Sen. Murkowski 'struggling' with whether to vote for Trump Poll: Biden leads Trump, Cunningham neck and neck with Tillis in North Carolina Scaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach MORE (R-N.C) is viewed as vulnerable to a primary challenge.

“There are still Republicans ... who are upset that we gave away Senate seats in Nevada, Missouri and Indiana that were right there for the taking,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman. “So I think folks here [in Washington] are very mindful of that.”

A national GOP strategist added that “there’s a pretty broad recognition that we’ve got to nominate candidates who are electable, and unfortunately the party has learned that lesson the hard way.”

National Republican groups aren’t ruling out intervening in the three GOP primaries as part of an effort to fend off candidates viewed as unelectable in November, including Moore and Kobach, who have both lost statewide races.

The GOP frustration with a potential Senate bid by Moore boiled over this week after the former Alabama chief justice predicted he could beat Sen. Doug Jones (D) in a 2020 rematch after losing in a 2017 special election.

Moore doubled down Wednesday, telling The Associated Press that “everybody knows I can win.”

ADVERTISEMENT

A second Senate bid would be a nightmare for national Republicans, who view Moore as a guarantee that Jones will be reelected despite Trump winning the state by nearly 30 points in 2016.

Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), has described the Senate GOP campaign wing’s stance as “ABRM: anyone but Roy Moore.”

Moore, during his Senate campaign, faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls from when he was in his 30s. Moore denied the allegations but Senate Republicans, including the NRSC, cut ties with him.

“There are a lot of Republicans in the state of Alabama who can beat Doug Jones, and Roy Moore has proven that he’s not one of them,” the national GOP strategist told The Hill. “We still think he could potentially be a force in a primary, and he’s not who we want as our general election nominee.”

Republicans point to Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump's confidence in Esper | 'Angry and appalled' Mattis scorches Trump Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard MORE (R-Ala.) or former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville as alternative candidates to Moore that the party could rally around as they seek to unseat Jones and win back the seat previously held by former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe, Rosenstein spar over Russia probe Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Rosenstein defends Mueller appointment, role on surveillance warrants MORE.

Trump, in a break from his 2017 stance, made it clear Wednesday that he does not want Moore to run, saying he “cannot win” and that Jones keeping the seat will have “devastating” repercussions.

"Republicans cannot allow themselves to again lose the Senate seat in the Great State of Alabama,” Trump said in a tweet Wednesday.

GOP strategists view Trump’s tweet urging Moore not to run, while caveating that he has nothing personally against the failed candidate, as a sign that the president and his supporters have learned a lesson from previous bloody primaries.

“I think the president’s comments were illuminating and on par with what the broader Republican Party believes in terms of Roy Moore and the Alabama Senate race,” said a second GOP operative. “I think the president highlights a very good point that Doug Jones is actively cheering for Roy Moore.”

Moore isn’t the only conservative causing heartburn for Republicans as they try to solidify their 2020 strategy. National Republicans have similar concerns about Kobach, who lost his 2018 bid to be Kansas’s governor and said earlier this month that he was still “actively considering” a 2020 Senate run.

The GOP strategist described the concerns about Kobach as national Republicans being “pro-winning” and “pro-keeping the majority.”

“He found a way to lose a statewide election” in Kansas, the strategist added.

Kobach lost his 2018 gubernatorial bid to Democratic nominee Laura Kelly by more than 4 percentage points.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans fear Trump may cost them Senate Overnight Energy: US Park Police say 'tear gas' statements were 'mistake' | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump juggles three crises ahead of November election MORE (R-Ky.) and his allies are hoping to persuade Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS image takes a hit as world reacts to Floyd protests Pompeo blasts China: 'Callous attempts to exploit George Floyd's tragic death' Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump MORE, who previously served as a House lawmaker from Kansas, to jump into the Senate race. Pompeo said in February that he had “ruled out” a bid, but national Republicans hope that it’s still early enough in the cycle that he could be wooed into changing his mind.

If Pompeo doesn’t run it would be a wide-open field to succeed retiring Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsDeadline for Kansas Senate race passes without Pompeo filing Overnight Defense: Democrats expand probe into State IG's firing | House schedules late June votes with defense bill on deck | New Navy secretary sworn in Government watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips MORE (R-Kan.). A second GOP operative rattled off a list of names of potential candidates viewed in Washington as being a better GOP nominee than Kobach: Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner, former Gov. Jeff Colyer and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle.

It’s not the first time Republicans have watched as conservative challengers have threatened to upset their game plan for keeping the Senate and holding onto what are viewed as reliably red-state, or flippable, seats.

During the 2012 cycle, then-Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMissouri county issues travel advisory for Lake of the Ozarks after Memorial Day parties Senate faces protracted floor fight over judges amid pandemic safety concerns Amash on eyeing presidential bid: 'Millions of Americans' want someone other than Trump, Biden MORE (D-Mo.) was viewed as likely to lose her race until GOP nominee Todd Akin, who defeated more-mainstream picks during the primary, said that “if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that down.”

In the same election cycle, conservative challenger Richard Mourdock defeated longtime Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) during the primary, only to lose against Democratic candidate Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE.

But it’s not just open seats that are showing signs of trouble for Republicans.

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseGraham postpones Russia probe subpoena vote as tensions boil over Clyburn: Cowed GOP ascribes 'mystical powers' to Trump Trump pushes back against GOP senators' criticism of dispersal of protesters in Lafayette Square: 'You got it wrong' MORE (R-Neb.), a conservative who has publicly aired concerns about Trump, has also sparked national chatter about a potential primary fight. The Nebraska Republican has broken with Trump on high-profile issues like withdrawing troops from Syria and lifting sanctions on three Russian companies.

He has also talked publicly about leaving the Republican Party, rhetoric that could raise concerns with many red-state voters.

But a GOP strategist on Wednesday dismissed the chances of a primary fight. And Heye, when asked about competitive races beyond North Carolina, Alabama and Kansas, said he "hadn't heard much" about a primary challenge developing against Sasse.

John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he was skeptical that Sasse would get a competitive Republican challenger. He noted that early chatter about a high-profile primary fight has died down as Sasse has stuck with Trump on recent fights, including voting against nixing his emergency declaration. 
 
"I think as long as Sasse continues to back the president on those kinds of issues, he'll be fine," Hibbing added.
 
Tillis, meanwhile, could find himself a target of the Club for Growth. The group hasn’t taken a position on the North Carolina race, but it circulated a recent poll arguing that Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerDemocrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard John Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America NCAA backs plan to allow college athletes to cash in on name, image and likeness MORE (R-N.C.), whom the Club for Growth is trying to nudge into the race, would be a “strong opponent” against Tillis. The polling memo also called Tillis a “weak incumbent” and that “if the Washington establishment and Mitch McConnell’s PAC support Tillis’s campaign, it will further erode his support.”

The group previously tried to unseat Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranEspy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid MORE (R-Miss.) during the 2014 cycle.

Reports about the group trying to recruit a challenger were met with swift pushback from Senate Republicans, reminiscent of the primary wars from previous cycles.

“Club for Growth had their head handed to them when they challenged Trump in the 2016 presidential primary,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, in a statement this month. “They’ll get the same result here in North Carolina.” 

The NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund have both pledged they won’t work with consultants who work on campaigns challenging a sitting GOP senator, marking part of an effort to dissuade top operatives from joining insurgency challengers.

“Party committees, their job is to protect their incumbent members and to win seats that currently belong to the other party,” Heye said, adding that there was “a lot of frustration ... in past cycles about primarying incumbent members.”

Updated at 12:28 p.m.