Bannon praises Flake opponent, slams Senate leader McConnell
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Steve Bannon leveled a blistering attack on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans at an Arizona fundraiser for a GOP primary challenger to incumbent Sen. Jeff Flake.
The former chief strategist to President Donald Trump heaped disdain on McConnell and other incumbent Republicans, saying they are failing the country by not backing Trump’s agenda and are openly critical of their own president.
Bannon said McConnell and Republicans such as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Arizona Sen. John McCain “are trying to destroy him every day” and fueling the populist revolt Bannon is pushing. His comments came at a Tuesday night campaign kickoff fundraiser for Flake challenger Kelli Ward in Scottsdale, Arizona, headlined by Bannon and talk show host Laura Ingraham.
“It’s an open revolt and it should be. These people hold you in total contempt,” Bannon said of establishment Republicans. “When they attack a Donald Trump and Dr. Kelli Ward, it’s not Donald Trump and Kelli Ward they’re trying to shut up, it’s you they’re trying to shut up.”
Bannon is promoting a field of primary challengers to take on incumbent Republicans in Congress, especially the Senate. He has said he plans to recruit challengers for every GOP senator up for re-election next year except Ted Cruz of Texas.
Bannon wasn’t following the game plan Trump seemed to advocate on Monday, when he said during an appearance with McConnell that he would try to discourage Bannon from going after all Republican senators and praised McConnell.
“Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they’re great people,” Trump said during a joint news conference with McConnell.
Flake is seeking a second term but has raised Trump’s ire by being among his most vocal critics among Senate Republicans. He’s being targeted by Ward and the Bannon-backed Great America PAC, which announced Monday it would back her over Flake.
Other Arizona Republicans are considering jumping in, driven by the belief that while Ward might be able to knock off Flake, she has too much baggage to win a general election.
Flake isn’t letting on that he’s overly worried about his re-election chances.
“I’ve had tough primaries almost every time I’ve run, mostly because of the position I’ve taken on immigration,” he told The Associated Press in an interview after his own Scottsdale fundraiser last week. “People will say, ‘Well I can get to the right of Jeff on immigration.’ But we came out all right.”
Flake has another fundraiser set for Thursday hosted by major Arizona donors, including auto dealership magnate Jim Click and Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. The event featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice comes after Sen. Marco Rubio came to back him last week.
“I believe Jeff Flake is as principled a conservative as there is,” Rubio said in an interview. “He believes in free enterprise, limited government, a strong America, he believes in the Constitution.”
At least one Republican senator who has been critical of Trump was dismissive of Bannon and his actions.
“He’s not on my radar. It’s not relevant to what I’m doing,” said Corker, who has announced he won’t seek re-election.
The Bannon-backed group also announced Monday it was supporting retired Marine Kevin Nicholson in Wisconsin over state Sen. Leah Vukmir in the GOP primary to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat seeking her second term. Great America also backed Roy Moore in his Alabama runoff with Sen. Luther Strange, the preferred candidate of McConnell. Moore defeated Strange.
Bannon pointed to that race and to Corker’s decision not to seek re-election in his speech before about 500 Ward supporters Tuesday.
“The last couple of days Mitch has been saying, ‘Hey you gotta win. Winners make policy, losers go home,’” Bannon said. “Note to self, Mitch: Big Luther Strange and little Bobby Corker are both going home. The people of Alabama and the people of Tennessee have spoken.”
A key goal of Bannon’s is to see McConnell dumped as Senate GOP leader, while also getting the president’s agenda, including the dismantling of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and major tax cuts, enacted.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. AP reporter Scott Bauer contributed from Madison, Wisconsin.