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Senate Leadership Fund Fights Attacks On Establishment Candidates


The Republicans are a party divided. The freshest evidence - an announcement by Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to President Trump and CEO of Breitbart News, that he will support alternatives to all but one of the Republican senators running for re-election. This is how Bannon put it on Saturday, speaking to conservatives at the Value Voters Summit in Washington.


STEVE BANNON: There's a time and season for everything. And right now it's a season of war against a GOP establishment.


GREENE: Well, with us in our studios here in Washington, D.C., is someone who's trying to fend off those challenges from the so-called insurgent right. Steven Law is president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC that backs establishment Republican candidates in Senate races. Thanks for coming in, Steven.

STEVEN LAW: Thank you.

GREENE: So how worried are you?

LAW: In the end, not terribly concerned about it. Let's look at the candidates that Steve Bannon has been recruiting. New York House district - he recruited a guy who's just fresh out of the slammer for tax evasion. In Nevada, the candidate he's supporting there is 0 for 5 in the last several Senate races - or races he's run. Just the other day on MSNBC, he said he would be open to gun control. That probably excited Rachel Maddow, but it's not the way you win primaries in Nevada or anywhere in the country. And in Wyoming, he's trying to get somebody in the race who's an international billionaire who currently lives in Abu Dhabi. And I did a little research. And nobody in Wyoming has ever won who's from Abu Dhabi.

GREENE: But didn't we just see an election? I mean, a president who comes from, you know, not a predictable history in politics. And didn't voters show a real willingness to look for an outsider? I mean, isn't that what a lot of people in this party are sort of crying out for right now?

LAW: I think people are looking for folks who can come to Washington to make a difference. But I don't think they're the kind of candidates that Steve Bannon is recruiting to try to run against incumbents. When you look at other races where he's expressed a preference, he's endorsed a candidate who we helped recruit in Missouri, Josh Hawley. He's also endorsed a candidate in Ohio who we supported six years ago, Josh Mandel. And he's agreed to support somebody who's really a kind of a consensus pick in Tennessee as the most conservative candidate who can win that general election. So the degree to which he's actually going to have an impact is open to a lot of question. I mean, back in February, Time magazine put Steve Bannon on the cover. And six months later, he was cleaning out his desk at the White House just like Dan Egan in "Veep."

GREENE: Although some suggest maybe has more influence outside the White House than he did on the inside, right?

LAW: Well, it remains to be seen. I think this is somebody who talks big. But at the end of the day, I just don't see it there. The only thing that's a concern for us is that we are going to have to divert some resources that we'd otherwise spend beating Democrats to make sure that we don't nominate candidates who would lose general elections the way they did in 2010 and 2012 before we got involved.

GREENE: Now, that is no small thing if you are diverting resources that you need to beat Democrats to ward off challengers during a primary time. I mean, it's not like you guys (laughter) just have money flying around everywhere. I mean, isn't that a concern when you're trying to hold on to Congress?

LAW: I think it's a very significant concern. I mean, we're actually seeing record fund raising because our donors see an opportunity to expand the Senate majority. They see the need to do that. But they're concerned, as we are, that we're going to have to end up spending money that would otherwise go to defeating Democrats like Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly dealing with this issue with Steve Bannon. So in that sense, it's Steve Bannon's gift to Chuck Schumer.

GREENE: You're seeing record fundraising right now.

LAW: Yes. In fact...

GREENE: For support of establishment Republican candidate.

LAW: Well, for the opportunity this cycle that our donors see to expand our Senate majority. These are donors who were with us in 2014 when we won the Senate majority. They were with us even more so in 2016 when we defended the majority. Most people didn't think we could do that. And now they see an opportunity to grow that majority. And very obviously, we need more votes in the Senate to get hard things done. And so they're excited by that. But they are concerned that we're going to have to divert resources to deal with this issue.

GREENE: Because I wondered - I mean, I think about something like the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - and the failure to repeal and replace and an agenda that seems to be not moving all that quickly right now. I was wondering if you have some donors who are really concerned about the party and its ability to govern right now.

LAW: Yeah. I think they are. And I share that concern. At the end of the day, I think our problem right now is not a Steve Bannon problem. It's a product problem. We've got to move issues forward that we promised we would deliver results on and that our voters and that our donors and others expect us to get progress on. At the end of the day, if we're able to do that, I think these other issues end up going to the background. And then we can focus on what, at least, we're focused on doing, which is expanding our majority in the Senate so that Senator McConnell and others will be able to get hard things done.

GREENE: Steven Law is president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC that backs establishment Republican candidates. Thanks so much for coming in. We really appreciate it.

LAW: Thank you.

GREENE: Scott Detrow, my colleague who covers Congress and politics is here. Scott, I guess we sort of had a case study with a recent race in Alabama where the rift in the Republican Party was on display. Did we learn anything from that about whether this matters less or more than is being suggested here?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Yeah. But that case study isn't over yet. And that's important. Luther Strange was the incumbent running against Roy Moore. The Senate Leadership Fund and President Trump and a lot of other so-called establishment groups really invested in Luther Strange. But Steve Bannon and others running against the establishment kind of were able to turn that against Strange in a way that Republicans often tie House Democratic candidates to Nancy Pelosi. More easily won the primary. But the question is, is this going to be a tougher general election now than Republicans would like to see in a place like Alabama, where they, you know, needless to say, usually win pretty easily?

GREENE: So bottom line - a lot to sort out. And hard to tell right now what this rift means.

DETROW: That's right.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.