Steve Bannon plans to back primary challengers to almost every Republican senator who runs for re-election next year in an effort to depose Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and streamline Senate voting procedures, three people familiar with his plans said.
Only Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is safe from the nascent political organization led by Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, the people said — because Cruz is considered conservative enough and is thought to be moving toward the more populist approach Bannon favors. Bannon has held a series of meetings to plan his moves for 2018 since late September, when he backed Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who’s been accused of bigotry, in a successful runoff election against Sen. Luther Strange, who had support from Trump and McConnell.
Bannon plans to support as many as 15 Republican Senate candidates in 2018, including several challengers to incumbents, the people said. He’ll support only candidates who agree to two conditions: They will vote against McConnell as majority leader, and they will vote to end senators’ ability to block legislation by filibustering.
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A spokesman for McConnell referred questions to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and to Josh Holmes, who managed McConnell’s 2014 re-election campaign. Neither immediately responded to a request for comment.
Bannon looks to knock off some of McConnell’s most reliable supporters in the Senate. They include Nevada’s Dean Heller, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, Wyoming’s John Barrasso, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, should he seek re-election. Bannon is working with Erik Prince, founder of the notorious mercenary company Blackwater, who is eyeing a run against Barrasso, the people said. The New York Times reported on Prince’s interest in the race on Sunday.
In Arizona, Bannon also plans to back former state Sen. Kelli Ward in a primary challenge to U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, who wrote a book critical of Trump. He also supports Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, a Tea Party Republican, to replace Senator John McCain if McCain — who is battling a brain cancer diagnosis — leaves office early.
In Tennessee, Bannon plans to back Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is running to replace Sen. Bob Corker. Corker, who doesn’t plan to seek re-election, engaged in a Twitter exchange with Trump Sunday. The president called Corker a coward for not seeking a third term. Corker responded by calling the White House an “adult day care center.” Bannon has encouraged Trump to push back against GOP senators they view as unreliable on Trump’s agenda, including Corker.
A key goal for Bannon is a long-shot bid to change Senate rules that currently require a 60-vote super-majority to end debate on most issues — a rule that can allow members to block votes by filibustering. That rule limits the power of the GOP’s current 52-vote majority in the chamber; it complicated the Senate’s ability to repeal Obamacare and is expected to complicate plans for tax legislation this year. Trump has repeatedly called for the Senate to change the rule.
McConnell himself won’t be up for re-election until 2020, but by targeting his supporters, Bannon might be able to force him from leadership in the Senate.
Bannon has been holding a series of meetings with donors, potential candidates and grassroots strategists to plan for the midterms, with the next scheduled for Oct. 18 in New York. Some have been attended by hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who donated $37.1 million to campaigns, super PACs and parties in the last three election cycles, and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer.