Wealthy donors take aim at GOP lead­er­ship

Con­ser­va­tives ex­press frus­tra­tion with party’s lack of leg­isla­tive wins

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Fredreka Schouten @fschouten USA TO­DAY Con­tribut­ing: El­iza Collins

Repub­li­can lead­ers in the Se­nate face in­creas­ingly vo­cal pres­sure from some of the party’s wealthy con­trib­u­tors to chalk up a leg­isla­tive win by quickly pass­ing tax cuts — or see cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions dwin­dle or shift to their chal­lengers in next year’s midterm elec­tions.

Donor frus­tra­tion cen­ters on the GOP’s fail­ure to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act, a top tar­get of Repub­li­can can­di­dates and lead­ers since it be­came law seven years ago. The Se­nate’s at­tempts to kill the law fal­tered this year after de­fec­tions from sev­eral Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Ari­zona Sen. John Mc­Cain.

Wednesday, the in­tra­party feud­ing es­ca­lated when a coali­tion of con­ser­va­tive lead­ers, in­clud­ing Tea Party Pa­tri­ots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, called on Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky, and his lead­er­ship team to step aside, say­ing they “have done noth­ing ” this year to ad­vance con­ser­va­tive poli­cies.

For­mer White House strate­gist Stephen Ban­non leads an in­sur­gency against McCon­nell. Ban­non, who backed for­mer Alabama chief jus­tice Roy Moore’s suc­cess­ful pri­mary win over McCon­nell-backed Sen. Luther Strange last month, seeks to re­cruit donors to his cause and is ex­pand­ing the list of in­cum­bent se­na­tors he hopes to top­ple.

The party in­fight­ing could im­peril Repub­li­cans’ hopes of re­tain­ing their four-seat Se­nate ma­jor­ity in the 2018 midterm elec­tions.

Whit Ayres, a veteran Repub­li­can poll­ster, said he’s seen “noth­ing in my ca­reer that has ap­proached this level of in­ternecine war­fare.”

“Ev­ery­body’s frus­trated,” he said. “The pres­i­dent is frus­trated. Se­na­tors and con­gress­men are frus­trated. It seems to be very dif- fi­cult to de­velop a ma­jor­ity coali­tion for much of any­thing so far.”

The drive to pass tax cuts be­fore year’s end will take cen­ter stage this week at a re­treat in New York where con­ser­va­tive donors aligned with bil­lion­aire Charles Koch will gather with top Koch op­er­a­tives to craft their strat­egy for the midterms.

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, who has close ties to Koch’s po­lit­i­cal em­pire, will de­liver the keynote ad­dress. Less than two weeks ago, his chief of staff, Nick Ay­ers, urged an­other group of Repub­li­can con­trib­u­tors to con­sider fund­ing a “purge” of Repub­li­can se­na­tors who fail to ad­vance Pres­i­dent Trump’s agenda, ac­cord­ing to an au­dio record­ing ob­tained by Politico.

Killing the 2010 health care law was “cer­tainly some­thing that ac­tivists and the Amer­i­can peo­ple an­tic­i­pated after Repub­li­cans ran on re­peal­ing Oba­macare for mul­ti­ple cy­cles,” said James Davis, a spokesman for the Koch net­work.

“That they haven’t done that puts them un­der even more pres­sure to de­liver tax re­form by the end of this year,” he said.

The Se­nate is to vote soon on a bud­get blueprint that would pave the way for the tax over­haul.

Koch groups pledged to spend up to $400 mil­lion on pol­icy and po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy dur­ing the 2018 elec­tion cy­cle and have plowed mil­lions of dol­lars into a cam­paign to sup­port a Trump tax blueprint.

Most Koch of­fi­cials have not at­tacked Repub­li­cans di­rectly, train­ing their fire­power on Demo­cratic in­cum­bents. Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity, Koch’s main ac­tivist arm, un­leashed a $4.5 mil­lion ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign on taxes that tar­gets Demo­cratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Mis­souri, Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana and Tammy Bald­win of Wis­con­sin.

Some in the Koch net­work make no se­cret of their dis­plea­sure with the party’s lead­ers.

“We’re very, very, very dis­sat­is­fied with the Se­nate and with Se­nate lead­er­ship,” said Doug Dea­son, a Dal­las in­vestor.

Dea­son said McCon­nell “has no spine” and should lose his po­si­tion after “no” votes from GOP se­na­tors helped sink Oba­macare re­peal ef­forts.

Dea­son was equally blunt in his crit­i­cism of Mc­Cain, say­ing the 2008 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, should re­sign from the Se­nate to fo­cus on his bat­tle with brain cancer. “He is old and tired, and it’s time for him to move on,” Dea­son said.

An aide to Mc­Cain did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment, and of­fi­cials in McCon­nell’s of­fice re­ferred ques­tions to the groups re­spon­si­ble for Se­nate cam­paigns. Of­fi­cials with the National Repub­li­can Se­na­to­rial Com­mit­tee de­clined to com­ment.

For all the tough talk, Dea­son said he is not will­ing to back in­sur­gents who want to take on sit­ting Repub­li­cans, not­ing that the in­cum­bents who have drawn most of his ire are not on the bal­lot next year. In­stead, he said he is likely to help Repub­li­cans work­ing to knock out Democrats, in­clud­ing Josh Man­del, who hopes to top­ple two-term Ohio Sen. Sher­rod Brown, and Kevin Ni­chol­son, a U.S. Marine veteran seek­ing to chal­lenge Bald­win.

Art Pope, a North Carolina busi­ness­man and one of the state’s most in­flu­en­tial Repub­li­can donors, said it’s hard to blame McCon­nell for Con­gress’ fail­ure to pass ma­jor leg­is­la­tion, given the GOP’s slim ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate and a united wall of op­po­si­tion from Democrats.

“That they haven’t (re­pealed Oba­macare) puts them un­der even more pres­sure to de­liver tax re­form.” James Davis, Koch net­work

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE, AP

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., cen­ter, speaks at the Capi­tol, joined by, from left, Sen. John Bar­rasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

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