GOP Senate hopefuls reluctant to back McConnell as leader – The Hill
Senate Majority LeaderÂ Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Childrenâs health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MOREÂ (R-Ky.)Â has become a flashpoint for Republicans running for Senate in 2018.Â
The HillÂ askedÂ nearly two dozen Senate candidates this weekÂ if they would support McConnell as leader if elected.Â Not one campaign said outright that they would support him, although two candidates appear to have expressed support in the past.
Several candidates declared their opposition to McConnell and attacked their GOP primary opponents for not taking a stance on the question. OtherÂ candidatesÂ deflected, or spoke on background about the bind theyâre in over the question of McConnellâs leadership. Most candidates were eager to avoid the question entirely, and ignored multiple requests for comment.
TheÂ candidate surveyÂ underscores the tricky balancing actÂ facingÂ Republican Senate candidates in 2018, which is shaping up to be a proxy war between theÂ partyÂ establishment andÂ itsÂ grass-roots base.
On one side is McConnell and his deep ties to the national partyâs donor network, a prized asset for any candidate facing a tough primary. On the other side is Breitbart chairmanÂ and former White House chief strategistÂ Stephen Bannon, the anti-establishment provocateur with anÂ influential news outlet who is asking candidates to oppose the majority leader.
âTen years ago when you ran campaigns, especially after 9/11, it was all about leadership. You could talk about your role in Congress in making things better,â one top aide to a GOP Senate campaign told The Hill. âNow Republican voters want to burn the place down, so you have more of a tightrope.âÂ
In primary races in Ohio and Missouri, candidates with crossover appeal between the grass roots and the establishment have both declined to endorse McConnell, but are under fire from their Republican opponents nonetheless.
GOPÂ Senate hopefulÂ Mike Gibbons is calling on Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, the favorite in the race, to sign his petition demanding that McConnell retire.
Mandel, who received millions of dollars in outside support from the McConnell-aligned group American Crossroads GPS for his failed 2012 bid, ducked the question at a press conference this week and told reporters heâd address it when elected.
âJust like we would expect from the career politician that he is, Josh is refusing to take a position,â Gibbons said in a statement to The Hill.
Mandelâs campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
In Missouri, Austin Petersen, who is running against state Attorney General Josh Hawley, the favorite, is similarly on the attack. Hawley has dodged the question of whether he would support McConnell, even as GOP strategist Karl Rove publicly boasts about how he and McConnell recruited Hawley to get into the race.
âHawley refuses to say whether heâll support him,â Petersen told The Hill. âThatâs playing politics. I said two months ago I wouldnât support McConnell and I had everything to lose when I did that.â
Hawleyâs campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In Arizona and Nevada, insurgent candidates Kelli Ward and Danny Tarkanian are demanding Republicans move on from McConnell as they seek to upset incumbent GOP Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeAuthorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient Republicans jockey for position on immigration McCain, Flake warn against ‘politically-motivated penalties’ for Canadian defense firm MORE (Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerNevada senators urge airlines to enact new policies after Las Vegas shooting Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada GOP establishment doubts Bannonâs primary powers MORE (Nev.), respectively.
So too is Alabamaâs Roy Moore, who won his September primary runoff against incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeRoy Moore Facebook page shares provocative memes on NFL anthem protests Poll: Moore has lead, Dems see opportunity in Ala. Senate race GOP establishment doubts Bannonâs primary powers MORE (R-Ala.)Â even afterÂ the Senate Leadership Fund â another McConnell-aligned group âÂ poured millions of dollars into the race to oppose Moore.
Wisconsinâs Kevin Nicholson and Pennsylvaniaâs Jeff Bartos both told The Hill it might be time for new leadership in the Senate. A spokesperson for Nicholson said, âheâs prepared to support new leadership because of the Senateâs failure to pass a conservative agenda,â while Bartos said heâd tie his vote to whether McConnell could âdeliver for the people who support the presidentâs agenda.âÂ
There are a few exceptions.
West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkinsâs campaign told Politico in August that he supports McConnell as leader, whileÂ an aide to Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale told the outlet that McConnellâs status as leader âis not in question.â Neither responded to The Hillâs inquiries.
Rosendale has the backing of Bannonâs allied super PAC. He recently tweeted a picture of himself with Bannon and called his campaign a bid against the âD.C. status quo.â
Rosendaleâs top opponent, businessman and veteran Troy Downing, had no comment for The Hill on McConnell. Montana state Sen. Al Olszewski said he would oppose McConnell, while former state Supreme Court judge Russell Fagg said he admires McConnell but âcan not be a guaranteed vote to any leader in advance.â
Jenkinsâs opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, also has the backing of the Bannon-aligned PAC, but did not respond to inquiries.Â
Sitting Republican lawmakers running for Senate were mum on the issue. Reps. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnEquifax breach is the wake-up call we expected Tennessee governor considering Senate run Five major potential Senate candidates MORE (Tenn.) Luke Messer (Ind.) and Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaTop Trump ally announces Senate run in Pennsylvania Barletta to announce Senate bid Tuesday: report Pennsylania Dems file ethics complaint against Rep. Barletta MORE (Penn.) did not answer, while Rep. Todd Rokita (Ind.) responded with an attack against his Democratic opponent.Â
McConnellâs allies say there is no need for prospective senators to weigh in on hypothetical leadership votes and believe there is more support for the majority leader than is being publicized by the candidates.
They donât think primary voters care about who the candidates might support for majority leader and are frustrated by what they view as Bannon needlessly sowing division within Republican ranks. Bannon has vowed to put up primary challengers to every incumbent running for reelection, with the exception of Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, youâre probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE (R-Texas).
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Rove, who oversees the powerful Senate Leadership Fund that seeks to reelect incumbents, attacked Bannon as a âfailed presidential adviser and alt-right sympathizer.â
Rove accused Bannon of launching a âjihad against incumbent Republicansâ and singled out Ward and Tarkanian as surefireÂ generalÂ election losers and part of Bannonâs âcollection of misfits and neâer-do-wells.â
Bannonâs critics say he is getting too much credit for swooping in late in Alabama, where they say Moore was already headed for certain victory over Strange, the McConnell-backed candidate.
They view Bannonâs efforts as a money-making scheme to raise his profile and note that the incumbents he plans to primary have voted with Trump more than 90 percent of the time.
âIf youâre a candidate wrapping yourself around an axle of who youâll support in a leadership election that presumes youâve already won a Senate seat, youâre doing it wrong,â said Josh Holmes, McConnellâs former chief of staff.Â
âVoters donât have an ounce of interest in who wins a prospective leadership race, they care about jobs. This is nothing more than a vanity project for Steve Bannon and, like all vanity projects, it will go about as far as you can throw a thousand-pound stone. Bannon doesnât have a movement behind him. The president does and without President Trump, Bannon is a nobody.â
Still, there is roiling anger at McConnell in some conservative quarters and those looking to harness that anti-establishment energy insist that running against the majority leader will be a winning issue for GOP primary candidates.
âOf course primary voters care about leadership elections,â said Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, which opposes McConnell. âTheyâve seen failed leadership in the Senate for years and want to see the member they vote for be able to enact the agenda they ran on.â
The attacks between the two wings of the party are heating up and becoming increasingly personal.
âIn 2018 we ought to revisit this question and find out if these people are still happy to be associated with Bannon,â said Holmes. âWhen youâre facing voters, Iâd take one of the most successful majority leaders in history over a white supremacist any day.âÂ
Andy Surabian, an adviser to Bannon, fired back.
âNo amount of smearing can change the fact that not a single U.S. Senate candidate was willing to go on the record and say that they supported Mitch McConnell for Majority Leader,â he said. âEveryone can see right through the clearly desperate, unfounded and pathetic attacks coming from McConnell Incorporated.â