GOP in­sur­gents claim­ing Trump man­tle, spell trou­ble for party

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Repub­li­cans face a prob­lem as they try to de­fend a slim ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate and win races else­where: In­sur­gent pri­mary can­di­dates are try­ing to lay claim to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s man­tle, and knock out the es­tab­lish­ment’s choices. The lat­est case is in Ne­vada, where en­dan­gered GOP in­cum­bent Sen. Dean Heller drew a chal­lenge Tues­day from busi­ness­man and re­peat failed can­di­date Danny Tarka­nian, who an­nounced his bid in an early morn­ing Fox News Chan­nel ap­pear­ance seem­ingly aimed at an au­di­ence of one: the pres­i­dent him­self.

“We’re never go­ing to make Amer­ica great again un­less we have sen­a­tors in of­fice that fully sup­port Pres­i­dent Trump and his Amer­ica-first agenda,” Tarka­nian said, crit­i­ciz­ing Heller as “one of the first never-Trumpers in Ne­vada” and ar­gu­ing he had ob­structed Trump’s agenda in Congress. Heller op­posed early ver­sions of Trump-backed health care leg­is­la­tion in the Se­nate be­fore vot­ing for a fi­nal ver­sion that failed any­way. His cam­paign spokesman, Tommy Fer­raro, dis­missed Tarka­nian as a “peren­nial can­di­date.” The Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee, which is the of­fi­cial Se­nate GOP cam­paign arm, quickly an­nounced its sup­port for Heller, and a su­per PAC backed by Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., com­mit­ted to spend­ing what it takes to sup­port him and other GOP in­cum­bents.

Dy­namic mir­rors

The dy­namic mir­rors long­stand­ing clashes be­tween the GOP’s es­tab­lish­ment and ac­tivist wings, which played out dis­as­trously in 2010 and 2012 when hard-core con­ser­va­tives won Se­nate pri­maries but went on to lose to Democrats. McCon­nell and his al­lies vowed never to let that hap­pen again and have sub­se­quently in­ter­vened in pri­maries when nec­es­sary to pro­duce can­di­dates who could win.

The X fac­tor now is the ap­peal Trump may hold to Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers and what Trump him­self will do. The pres­i­dent of­fered one clue Tues­day night, back­ing the es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date in next week’s GOP Se­nate spe­cial elec­tion pri­mary in Alabama, hours af­ter an As­so­ci­ated Press story noted the ab­sence so far of a pres­i­den­tial en­dorse­ment in the race. “Sen­a­tor Luther Strange has done a great job rep­re­sent­ing the peo­ple of the Great State of Alabama. He has my com­plete and to­tal en­dorse­ment!” the pres­i­dent wrote, by­pass­ing a fire­brand House con­ser­va­tive, Mo Brooks, and an evan­gel­i­cal for­mer state chief jus­tice, Roy Moore, in fa­vor of the ap­pointed sen­a­tor strongly backed by McCon­nell. The can­di­dates are fight­ing over the seat pre­vi­ously held by now-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions.

But whether Heller will get the pres­i­den­tial seal of ap­proval in his pri­mary is far less clear, and he is not alone. Next door in Ari­zona, GOP in­cum­bent Sen. Jeff Flake, an­other Trump skep­tic dur­ing last year’s cam­paign, faces at least one chal­lenge from the right in con­ser­va­tive Kelli Ward, who re­peat­edly de­nounces Flake while prais­ing Trump. In each case, to their an­noy­ance, es­tab­lish­ment-aligned Repub­li­cans face the prospect of spend­ing mil­lions to pro­tect an in­cum­bent from a chal­lenger who might have a tough time get­ting out of the gen­eral elec­tion. Repub­li­cans hold a 52-48 Se­nate ma­jor­ity and are play­ing of­fense against Demo­cratic in­cum­bents in 10 states Trump won. “It’s a crit­i­cal time to make sure that Repub­li­can mem­bers know, when they’re cast­ing tough votes, that we’ll have their backs,” said Steven Law, a for­mer McCon­nell chief of staff who heads the Se­nate Lead­er­ship Fund, in de­scrib­ing the de­ci­sion to come in with mil­lions to back Strange in Alabama.

Un­der­scored ques­tions

Un­til Trump weighed in with his en­dorse­ment late Tues­day, the Alabama race had un­der­scored ques­tions about the role the pres­i­dent would play in Se­nate pri­maries. A for­mer GOP Se­nate cam­paign of­fi­cial with knowl­edge of the sit­u­a­tion said the NRSC has sought help from the Trump White House on Se­nate races but those re­quests went unan­swered un­der the lead­er­ship of re­cently ousted Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, lead­ing to wide­spread frus­tra­tion. The for­mer cam­paign of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal party mat­ters. While Trump and Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence have said they want to in­crease the Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties in the House and Se­nate, the White House’s ap­proach to con­tentious pri­maries isn’t clear yet. And Trump has al­ready worked against McCon­nell’s goals, ig­nor­ing his pleas not to ap­point for­mer Mon­tana Rep. Ryan Zinke, a likely Se­nate can­di­date, as In­te­rior sec­re­tary, while boost­ing en­dan­gered Demo­cratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Vir­ginia by host­ing them at Trump Tower.

As for Heller, he is al­ready walk­ing the Trump tightrope. Heller’s ini­tial de­nun­ci­a­tion of a Se­nate plan to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare drew the ire of a po­lit­i­cal non­profit pro­mot­ing Trump’s agenda. Amer­ica First Poli­cies tied Heller to House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a so­cial me­dia push and threat­ened to spend more than $1 mil­lion trash­ing him on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio on his home turf. McCon­nell called the group’s at­tacks “be­yond stupid.”

In ad­di­tion to the health care episode, Heller in 2015 said he was do­nat­ing Trump’s pre­vi­ous cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to char­ity - a move he an­nounced af­ter Trump came un­der fire for char­ac­ter­iz­ing some il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Mex­ico as rapists. For a pres­i­dent with a fa­mously long mem­ory for slights, Heller may have lit­tle hope of get­ting back into his good graces. —AP

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