Senate primaries: How far will Trump go for revenge?

Speculation is growing that President Trump will buck his own party and back primary challengers to two incumbent GOP senators seeking reelection in 2018, an exceedingly rare event that would deepen divisions within a party already struggling to govern despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress.

The White House is closely watching Senate races in Arizona and Nevada, where Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism Kelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Nev.) have attracted pro-Trump primary challengers. A couple of other challengers in Arizona with close ties to Trump are still weighing bids and have visited the White House in recent weeks.

Heller is not close with Trump, although his allies insist he has a good working relationship with the president. Flake is outright hostile to Trump. 

The White House is growing tired of the presence of lawmakers it views as insufficiently loyal to the president.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” a White House official told The Hill.

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Robert Mercer, the billionaire GOP donor who is close with White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, plowed $300,000 this week into a super PAC supporting Flake’s primary challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward.

It’s a sign that Trump’s allies may be preparing for battle against Republican incumbents and giving a green light for the right to go on the attack.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) are standing firmly behind the incumbents. 

Washington Republicans who are eager to see Heller and Flake reelected hope that Trump will swallow his pride and endorse the incumbents — or stay out of their races entirely.
 
They note that if the White House pushes new challengers into the races or publicly opposes an incumbent, it could permanently damage the already rocky relationship between Trump and McConnell.

“Trump and McConnell’s fates are aligned,” said one McConnell ally. “They share the same legislative goals, and the president needs McConnell more than anyone to enact his agenda. Policies follow politics, so if they don’t win these races, they can kiss the agenda goodbye.”

The challengers presently in the races — Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian in Nevada and Ward in Arizona — are weaker general election candidates than the incumbents and could potentially imperil the slim GOP majority in the Senate if they made it through to Election Day.

Tarkanian has run for national office several times unsuccessfully, while Ward is viewed as a fringe character and last year finished a distant second in a primary challenge to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Cindy McCain ‘disappointed’ McGrath used image of John McCain in ad attacking McConnell Report that Bush won’t support Trump reelection ‘completely made up,’ spokesman says MORE (R-Ariz.).

It would be a risk for Trump to back one of them, although stronger pro-Trump candidates wait in the wings in Arizona and could be an attractive option for the White House.

Still, Trump has signaled that he can play nice with incumbents, even when it would seem to run contrary to his presumed personal preferences.

The president is widely viewed to have done McConnell a favor by endorsing Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), the favorite among Washington Republicans to finish 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’s term, in the Republican primary for Alabama’s December special election.

Trump picked Strange, the temporary appointee backed by the NRSC, over former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksOvernight Defense: Senate confirms US military’s first African American service chief | Navy to ban display of Confederate flags | GOP lawmakers urge Trump not to cut troops in Germany Republicans urge Trump to reject slashing US troop presence in Germany Conservative lawmakers press Trump to suspend guest worker programs for a year MORE (R-Ala.), the anti-establishment candidate who is now pleading with the president to reconsider.

“That was a good sign hopefully of things to come,” said one GOP operative. “But [Trump] is not predictable.”

Indeed, since he endorsed Strange, the relationship between Trump and McConnell has crumbled.

McConnell complained publicly about criticism that the Senate is not getting anything done and partially blamed the “artificial deadlines” set by the White House for the failure to move on healthcare. 

McConnell’s remarks have provoked an avalanche of fury from Trump and his allies.

White House digital director Dan Scavino fumed over Twitter at McConnell’s “excuses,” while Fox News anchor Sean Hannity lashed out at the majority leader as “weak” and “spineless.”

Trump took the feud to another level on Thursday, when he suggested McConnell should step down as majority leader if he can’t pass Trump’s legislative agenda.

Ward echoed that attack in an interview with The Hill.

“I don’t know why McConnell came out attacking the president and pointing fingers and saying expectations are too high,” she said. 

“The American people have high expectations because Republicans told voters if they gave us the House and Senate and White House we could accomplish anything. Now instead of checking those off, we’re hearing excuses. Well, the era of excuses is over. … If McConnell wants to keep his leadership role, he should be focused on getting Trump’s America first agenda through Congress.”

There is some worry that the infighting could lead the White House to be more aggressive in going after incumbents if the current lawmakers can’t get Trump’s agenda passed anyway.

That would be a drastic move that political operatives around these races are bracing for. Still, many are doubtful Trump will challenge party leaders here, pointing to the controversy surrounding the pro-Trump outside group America First Policies. The group cut ads against Heller for opposing the GOP’s repeal bill, but later pulled the ads after Heller met with the White House and the Senate vote was pulled.

“Nationally, the decision to oppose a sitting conservative Republican senator would break new ground and there would be a massive amount of pressure for him not to do it,” said Arizona pollster Mike O’Neil. “Locally, it would be a huge boost for the challenger. Trump is still relatively popular in this state, especially among the base, so it would be a big deal for any candidate.”

Trump easily won the Republican presidential primaries in both Arizona and Nevada.

But Republicans are hopeful it doesn’t come to a showdown between the president and his party.

Strategists note that Trump has not directed much public fury at Heller or Flake, despite ample opportunities to do so.

Flake has been making the rounds to promote his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” which argues that Republicans should have thwarted Trump’s rise and must reclaim conservatism from him.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel have brushed Flake back, but their rebukes could have been far sharper and Trump has not tweeted about him yet. 

Earlier this year, the president publicly baited Heller, who was sitting next to him at a White House meeting on healthcare, asking if he wants to “remain a senator.” But Trump has otherwise saved his intraparty fire for McConnell and his own attorney general.

“If the White House is thinking strategically for the long term, I don’t see how it benefits them to go against the incumbents,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, who once acted as an outside adviser to one of Tarkanian’s campaigns. 

“A middle finger to McConnell is a middle finger to your own legislative agenda and once these elections are over you never know if the loyalties you thought you had will still exist because there will be enormous pressure for the new guys to demonstrate independence.”

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