Senate Republicans are firing a warning shot at Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who is plotting a conservative uprising against the party’s incumbents in next year’s critical midterm elections.
Concerned about retaining their fragile majority, GOP senators said in interviews Monday that Bannon’s nascent effort would further damage the prospects of keeping control of the Senate. Republicans are already in the middle of a cycle in which some senators have been trying to fend off primary challengers, even before Bannon’s meddling.
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“I wish he’d focus on Democrats. Circular firing squads don’t work very well,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip and two-time chairman of the party’s Senate campaign arm, said in an interview Monday. “I think it certainly doesn’t make it any easier [in keeping the majority] and it just seems so counterproductive.”
When asked whether Bannon’s push would make it more difficult for Republicans to keep their majority in the Senate, South Dakota Sen. John Thune responded: “It does.”
“It’s not particularly productive,” said Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican. “We ought to stay focused on the task at hand, and that’s getting some results for the American people and then seeing what we can do to gain seats.”
But Bannon, now the executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News empire, appears undeterred. He met privately last week with Nevada attorney Danny Tarkanian — who has announced a primary challenger to Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — and is getting behind Roy Moore, the controversial former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who has consistently led in polls against Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.). Strange and Moore are vying for the Alabama GOP Senate nomination in a Sept. 26 runoff.
POLITICO reported Sunday that other incumbents are on Bannon’s target list: Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona — a vocal critic of Donald Trump during the campaign who has penned a book that, in part, goes after the president — as well as Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. There, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who challenged Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in a nasty primary battle in 2014, is thought to be considering another run at the Senate, this time against Wicker.
“I might comment on that later on,” Wicker, also a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Monday of Bannon’s effort to defeat GOP incumbents such as himself. “But not now.”
Corker, meanwhile, said in an interview Monday morning that he was undecided on running for a third term next year, stressing that he is in a “strong position” to win but that “running for reelection has never been an automatic for me.”
When asked about Bannon’s plan, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the current NRSC chairman, said: “What we need to do is come together [and] agree on the principles of lower taxes, reduced government regulations. And that will solve a lot of the challenges.”
The threats emanating from Bannon are especially potent because conservative primary challengers to Republican incumbents are essentially the only way that Democrats, who now control 48 seats, could create a path to a Senate majority.
Heller, the sole Republican up for reelection in a state won by Hillary Clinton last November, is widely considered the Senate’s most vulnerable GOP incumbent. Flake is also expected to face a tough reelection bid and is already facing former state Sen. Kelli Ward in the primary.
But after those two seats, Democrats would have to look to a state like Texas — where Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is mounting a long-shot bid against Sen. Ted Cruz — or Tennessee to find the third pick-up seat that would hand them the majority. Democrats are also defending 10 seats in states won by Trump last year.
“I always make it a point not to get into the middle of Republican civil wars,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Monday. “So I’ll leave it to them.”