Republicans are waging a multi-front battle within the party, creating schisms between the president, lawmakers and their base that threaten to upend both the GOP’s legislative agenda and political standing ahead of the 2018 elections.
Much of the blame and frustration is aimed directly at the Senate, specifically its leadership. Also, President Trump is engaged in an explosive public feud with retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Meanwhile, House Republicans are growing increasingly vocal in their frustration with the upper chamber; a slew of conservative groups are calling for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to step down; and Stephen Bannon, the former chief White House strategist, is threatening primary challenges against nearly every Republican incumbent running for re-election to the Senate next year.
It’s put the entire body’s Republicans in a precarious position as they inch toward the end of the year and work to find consensus on tax reform legislation, their last chance for a significant legislative victory in the first year of supposedly unified GOP government.
“The way to defuse it is to win on tax reform,” said Scott Jennings, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and political adviser to McConnell. “That would help significantly ease the process of having government fully under Republican control that appears to be completely and totally dysfunctional. They need to win on a legislative issue.”
In particular, the ongoing spat between Trump and Corker has put the party on edge. Corker is considered a key vote on tax reform — a staunch fiscal conservative, he took a hard-line position to not back a measure that would increase the deficit, and his retirement announcement gives him flexibility in voting.
Trump initially suggested Corker “begged” for him to endorse his re-election, something the Tennessee lawmaker and his staff refuted. Corker then gave an explosive interview to the New York Times saying Trump “concerns” him — particularly that he could put the country “on the path to World War III.” Few Republicans weighed in on the back-and-forth, and those who did mostly called for both sides to avoid further conflict.
“I think my advice is for these two gentlemen to sit down and just talk through their issues,” Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday.
But while a victory on tax reform could quiet tensions between House and Senate and ease Trump’s frustration, that alone won’t solve lawmakers’ problems. Much of the frustration from conservatives revolves around the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Bannon and conservative groups appear ready to wage political war during primary season next year regardless of legislative outcomes going forward.
“We are declaring war on the Republican establishment that does not back the agenda that Donald Trump ran on,” Bannon said on Fox News.
Bannon and his allies, buoyed by the victory of Roy Moore last month in the Alabama primary runoff for Senate, are threatening primaries against every Republican incumbent in 2018 except Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and have been working to recruit candidates in these races.
In a deja-vu moment of intraparty tension, several outside conservative groups held a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday calling on McConnell to step aside as Senate leader. These groups, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, have previously called for removing GOP leadership and have fought similar battles with McConnell in multiple previous primary cycles.
Ken Cuccinelli, the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, echoed Bannon’s threat to oppose all GOP incumbents except Cruz next year — a list that includes Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
“Mitch McConnell was an albatross around Luther Strange’s neck [in Alabama], much like Nancy Pelosi has been used against Democrats,” Cuccinelli said, referring to GOP attacks against the House minority leader. “That is not going to change, and that makes all these folks vulnerable so long as they stay on that team and not on the grassroots team.”
Republicans close to leadership view these threats with frustration, arguing that GOP incumbents in 2018 all voted for Obamacare repeal efforts and are likely reliable votes for a tax reform bill, while candidates backed by Bannon and outside groups may be less reliable supporters of Trump’s agenda in Congress. Josh Holmes, a top political adviser and former chief of staff for McConnell, said there should be no attempt to de-escalate tensions with Bannon and outside groups backing primaries, but that those efforts should be met “head-on.”
“What Steve Bannon is doing is threatening to go after [Trump’s] most reliable votes in Congress, people who have been with the president 100 percent of the time, and replacing them with people who are pretty questionable,” Holmes said.
But Bannon argued that “just voting is not good enough” and that senators need a “sense of urgency. Nobody is safe.” Multiple primary challenges appear inevitable, with candidates already declared against Flake and Heller and former state Sen. Chris McDaniel expected to run against Wicker in Mississippi. Candidates in Utah and Wyoming are weighing bids, though no challenger has yet to emerge in Nebraska.
Jennings said that to avoid falling victim to primary challenges, Republican senators need to forcefully highlight what they’ve done to back Trump’s agenda, specifically their support for Obamacare repeal and tax reform even if neither measure ever passes. But he conceded that voting for failed bills might not be enough to stave off attacks.
“Policy seems to matter less than attitude,” Jennings said. “You cannot appear satisfied with saying, ‘I voted for it; what do you want me to do?’ You have to channel the frustration and the anger to the extent you can without looking ridiculous. And the truth is I think most of these senators are frustrated.”