Could Bannon Cost GOP Incumbents Their Seats?

Several articles are surfacing this week speculating that former presidential advisor Steve Bannon wanting to find and support challengers to Republican Senate incumbents could cost the GOP its majority. It appears individuals making such a claim have forgotten how to count.

Keeping in mind that the Democrats must protect 25 of 33 in-cycle Senate seats, there are simply not enough legitimate targets available for the minority to change their status within the chamber, even though they need a net gain of only three seats. Yes, the Dems are forcing Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) into toss-up situations, but the remaining six GOP incumbents are some of the safest in the Senate. So, even if Mr. Bannon or other conservative insurgents recruit opposition to incumbents, the chances of the eventual Republican nominee losing the general election in these particular states are extremely low.

In addition to Sens. Heller and Flake, the six Republicans standing for election next year are: Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), John Barrasso (R-WY), and the open Tennessee seat (Sen. Bob Corker retiring). Keep in mind, for the Democrats to assume the Senate majority they must convert at least one of these states, while winning all of their own most vulnerable incumbent seats – in other words, all ten that they risk in states where President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

Additionally, the Democrats are not yet fielding viable challengers in most of these places, and it doesn’t appear likely that they will. Therefore, without Senatorial candidates possessing credibility, victories will not happen.

In Mississippi, Sen. Wicker may well be forced to fend off a strong primary challenge. State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellis County), who came within an eyelash of unseating Sen. Thad Cochran (R) in 2014, may enter the primary race. Regardless of the Republican nomination outcome, how do the Democrats win the general election here? At this point, the only potential general election candidate is Bernie Sanders campaign activist Jensen Bohren, who will not prove credible. The one Democrat who could be competitive, Attorney General Jim Hood (D), has shown no interest in becoming a Senate candidate.

Nebraska Sen. Fischer is in strong shape to secure her first re-election. Though she may be on Bannon’s target list, so far no Republican has come forward to state an interest in battling her for the party nomination. In the general, two Democrats have announced, the strongest being Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould, a candidate who has yet to even file a FEC financial disclosure report.

Sen. Cruz is the only in-cycle incumbent not on Bannon’s target list, and it does not appear he will draw a major primary challenger. Mr. Cruz then faces a head-on campaign against three-term El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke who will have plenty of money to wage a credible campaign. Despite the high Texas Hispanic population numbers, the state’s changing demographic model has failed to elect even one statewide Democrat, and will not do so in 2018.

Utah’s veteran Sen. Hatch continues to equivocate somewhat about seeking an eighth term and rumors persist that former presidential nominee Mitt Romney may be in the picture should the Senator decide to retire after 42 years of Senatorial service. Even though the Democrats have a credible candidate in Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, no party change will occur here whether the eventual nominee is Sen. Hatch, Mr. Romney, one of Mr. Romney’s sons, Gov. Gary Herbert, or Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Farmington/Salt Lake City). In any event, the GOP will have a candidate who will easily hold this safest of Republican seats.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso is drawing some recent interest from the Bannon forces with Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater international security firm, being a possible candidate. Additionally, long time GOP financial donor and investment guru Foster Friess has also been contemplating his own US Senate challenge to Mr. Barrasso. Like in some of the other states, the Democrats have no viable candidate, so whichever individual eventually becomes the Republican nominee holds the seat in November of 2018.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker announcing his retirement has kicked off an edition of political musical chairs. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) is already in the race, and the Bannon group, along with the Club for Growth, looks favorably upon her candidacy. Democrats have a problem here in that their top four potential candidates: former Gov. Phil Bredesen, US Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville), Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, and financial donor and former Nashville mayoral candidate Bill Freeman, all immediately removed themselves from candidate speculation. Thus, the Tennessee Democrats will field a lesser open seat candidate next year making a conversion here all the more unlikely.

Whether Steve Bannon and his supporters have an effect upon GOP primaries is undetermined at this early point in the election cycle, but regardless of how many, if any, Senate incumbents are denied re-nomination the mathematics dictate that the act of challenging, and possibly even defeating, them will not cost the Republicans their slim majority.

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Jim Ellis

Jim Ellis was born and raised in Sacramento, California. He earned a B. A. in Political Science from the University of California at Davis in 1979. Jim raised his daughter, Jacqueline, alone after his wife died following a tragic car accident. He helped establish the Joan Ellis Victims Assistance Network in Rochester, NH. Jim also is a member of the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association, which officiates high school games throughout the region.

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