Senate Candidates Wrestle With Bannon’s War on McConnell

The party’s hopefuls would prefer not to alienate either faction.

President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Rose Garden on Monday
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Oct. 19, 2017, 1:37 p.m.

Steve Bannon’s rhetorical war on Republicans is injecting an uncomfortable question into the biggest Senate battlegrounds: whether GOP candidates will support Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if they are elected.

While anti-Washington messaging has long defined campaigns, Republican Senate hopefuls are now grappling with how to position themselves in a fast-escalating conflict. For candidates courting Bannon’s support, he is reportedly asking them to oppose the Kentucky Republican.

In states like Alabama and Arizona, the Bannon-aligned candidates are openly railing against McConnell. But in key Senate races such as Ohio and Missouri, where the party hopes to pick up seats, leading Republican challengers are ducking questions on whether they want to oust the majority leader.

The dynamic, GOP strategists admitted, is forcing Republicans into an unenviable spot between two competing—and potentially vital—factions in a primary.

“It’s asking people to pick what sibling they like better,” said one national GOP strategist with Senate race experience. “It’s sort of a lose-lose situation.”

Top Republicans are also sounding alarms about candidates who tie themselves too closely to President Trump’s former chief strategist, predicting it will hamper them in the general election.

“My biggest concern is that Republican candidates who wrap themselves around Steve Bannon now will have to answer for his unsavory views and alt-right connections when Democrats put him into their attack ads next fall,” said Steven Law, president of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund.

At a news conference this week, McConnell and Trump tried to put on a public display of unity. Trump at one point said the two are “probably now closer than ever before.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that some candidates on Bannon’s radar have deep ties to the GOP establishment. In Missouri, for example, Josh Hawley was a top recruit of national Republicans, and the current front-runner in Ohio, Josh Mandel, ran with full party support as the nominee in 2012. This week, both dodged when asked whether they would support McConnell.

In Tennessee, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who has emerged as a consensus pick, has already received Bannon’s endorsement. The Blackburn campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether the congresswoman would support McConnell.

The unusual scenario could force groups like SLF to spend heavily for candidates who have opposed McConnell, a possibility that Law downplayed.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know that that’s even an issue we’re going to need to confront,” he said.

Law brushed aside a follow-up question on how the group might act in a primary in which one candidate backs McConnell and the other does not.

“We’re going to be fine,” he said. “We’re going to be supporting nominees who can win in general elections in a lot of these states.”

In some cases, Senate candidates are explicitly running against the current Senate, but it is less clear whether they want to throw out McConnell.

In Indiana, Rep. Luke Messer has criticized the Senate’s inaction on issues such as health care, while his primary opponent, Rep. Todd Rokita, last week told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette that “senators who have egos bigger than God” are impeding legislative progress.

Rokita associates have been in contact with people in Bannon’s orbit, his campaign confirmed, though a spokesman took a question about whether the congressman backs McConnell to instead bash Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly. Messer’s team did not respond to a request for comment.

In other states, candidates’ opposition to the top Senate Republican has been well-documented. In Wisconsin, Republican Kevin Nicholson, a Marine veteran, is publicly posturing himself as an anti-McConnell candidate. His primary opponent, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, is taking a different tact, telling National Journal she will “support whomever will help the president drain the swamp.”

Still, among some veteran GOP strategists, there remains deep skepticism that the McConnell talk carries outsize weight in a primary.

“Most primary voters don’t go to the polls to pick a leader,” said Rob Collins, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They go to the polls to pick someone who’s going to reflect the voters.”

Another GOP strategist with experience in Senate campaigns said a candidate’s operation, rather than any perceived distance from GOP leadership, is ultimately the most important factor.

“In reality, the only things that matter are the capability of the candidacy and the caliber of their campaign,” the strategist said.

At this stage, it is unclear which primaries will draw involvement from national Republican groups. As is standard for incumbents, the NRSC and Senate leadership have already vowed to protect Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who are facing intraparty challenges from the right. But in several races for Democratic-held seats, Republicans don’t see enough of a drop-off between primary contenders to warrant outside meddling.

Most recently, SLF shelled out more than $10 million in Alabama for Sen. Luther Strange, who faced repeated attacks over his ties to McConnell from former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore in the special-election runoff. An internal Strange campaign poll showed only 10 percent of Alabama Republicans had a favorable opinion of the majority leader, National Journal reported.

Despite Moore’s opposition to McConnell, the NRSC and SLF rushed to endorse him after his decisive victory in the primary. McConnell himself also embraced Moore, saying he ran a “spirited campaign” grounded in Washington dissatisfaction.

There is precedent for the Senate committee to back antiestablishment candidates. In 2012, for example, the group spent late for Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri, whose controversial candidacies roiled the Republican Party before they both lost their bids. It has also stood by incumbents, like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have had fraught relationships with GOP leaders.

“I would argue that they have to look at every race individually and make what the best choice is,” Collins said. “Politics is additive—if someone is going to add to your goal, then you work with them.”

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