GOP senators call on Bannon, Trump to lay off incumbents

Top Senate Republicans are firing back at Stephen Bannon amid reports that he is eyeing primary challenges to GOP incumbents who he believes haven’t been supportive of President Trump, calling on both the president and his ousted chief strategist to leave elected Republicans alone. 

“I wish they would focus on Democrats instead of Republicans,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate headed for late night vote amid standoff over lands bill Koch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Tim Scott to introduce GOP police reform bill next week MORE (R-Texas) told reporters when asked about Bannon.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names The Hill’s Morning Report – Treasury, Fed urge more spending, lending to ease COVID-19 wreckage MORE (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, added that the potential primary threats could make it harder for Republicans to hold onto their thin 52-seat majority despite a favorable map in the 2018 midterm elections.

“It does [make it harder]. And it’s not particularly productive. … We ought to stay focused on the task at hand,” he told reporters. 

Sources told CNN and Politico that Bannon and his allies are actively preparing for Republican primary challenges to several sitting senators, including Sen. 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.). 

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Bannon, who returned to leading Breitbart News after exiting the White House last month, has signaled for months that he is willing to challenge GOP incumbents and punish congressional leadership for not being supportive of Trump’s agenda. 

And the president, who recently cut a budget deal with Democratic leadership, has frequently lashed out publicly at GOP senators, including Flake, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism Trump asserts his power over Republicans Romney is only GOP senator not on new White House coronavirus task force MORE (Tenn.) and 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 (Ky.).

Cornyn added that Trump and his allies would be “well-advised to focus on growing our number of Republicans in the Senate rather than diminishing it.”

“The president’s going to need as many friendly faces around here as he can get in order to get things done,” he said. “I realize that bipartisanship is important, but he shouldn’t mistake a smile for support when it really counts.”

The threat of intraparty fighting has frustrated congressional leaders, who are eager to avoid a repeat of 2010 and 2012, when some weak candidates defeated rivals from the GOP establishment in party primaries only to lose general elections. 

McConnell has pledged that he and allied outside groups will spend money to help protect GOP incumbents running for reelection. 

“We intend to play in primaries if there’s a clear choice between someone who can win in November and someone who can’t,” the majority leader said earlier this year.

Republicans face a largely favorable map heading into 2018, with Democrats defending roughly two dozen seats, including 10 in states Trump won in last year’s presidential election.

Flake and Sen. 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 (Nev.) are the two Republican senators widely considered most vulnerable. 

Meanwhile, Corker and Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Bottom line MORE (R-Utah) have yet to commit to running for reelection next year, and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsRepublicans prepare to punt on next COVID-19 relief bill Trump tweets spark fresh headache for Republicans Trump’s tweet on protester sparks GOP backlash  MORE (R-Maine) is eyeing a 2018 gubernatorial bid. 

Corker told reporters he has “no reason to believe” the administration would encourage a GOP primary challenger against him.

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