Senate Republicans and their establishment allies are vowing to blackball any political consulting firm that works to defeat GOP incumbents, a dramatic step likely to further inflame intraparty tensions over 2020 primaries.
The move comes one day after POLITICO reported that the anti-tax Club for Growth was attempting to lure a Republican congressman to take on first-term Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), infuriating party leaders.
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The Senate GOP campaign arm responded Friday by proclaiming a “zero tolerance policy” against party strategists who aid primary challengers. Party leaders are looking to head off the type of internecine warfare that regularly plagued Republican senators earlier this decade but has tailed off in recent years.
“It is the policy of the NRSC that we will defend any member of our caucus from any challenge — be it in a primary or general election — by any means necessary,” Kevin McLaughlin, the National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director, said in a statement. “It is a zero tolerance policy and we will not work with any vendors who work for campaigns or outside groups challenging incumbent Republican senators.”
The announcement is the most public brushback to those working for primary challengers since 2014, when the NRSC — looking to beat back a wave of conservative insurgents — cut off a consulting firm that had targeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other incumbents up for reelection that year.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a well-funded super PAC closely aligned with McConnell, joined the committee in its decision.
“We have a long-standing policy of not using consultants who are assisting primary challenges against our Senate incumbents,” said Steven Law, the group’s president.
The Club for Growth has not opposed an incumbent Republican senator since 2014, when it tried to unseat then-Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. But this week, the organization indicated it was trying to nudge North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, a staunch Trump ally, into the primary. The Club for Growth also released a poll suggesting that Tillis would be vulnerable in a primary and general election.
The flare-up threatens to divide Republicans in a state at the center of the party’s 2020 strategy. Senate GOP campaign officials have warned aides to President Donald Trump that a disruptive and chaotic North Carolina Senate primary could hurt Trump in the battleground state.
North Carolina had already become an early focus of GOP concerns. The state Republican Party, whose chairman was recently indicted in a corruption case, has been wracked by turmoil. And there is considerable angst within the party about a field of lackluster gubernatorial candidates.
Senate Republicans are vigorously working to protect Tillis. In recent weeks, NRSC officials raised concerns with Trump campaign aides over the work that John McLaughlin, one of the president’s pollsters, was doing for Tillis primary challenger Garland Tucker. On Tuesday, McLaughlin’s firm withdrew from the North Carolina race.
The NRSC has indicated that it’s prepared to aggressively go after Walker, a third-term evangelical pastor. The committee, for example, has pointed out that the congressman has become entangled in the same federal corruption probe that led to the indictment of state party chairman Robin Hayes.
Major donors and outside groups are also coming to the senator’s defense. A spokesman for GOP megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson said the couple “stands by Thom Tillis.”
Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC that in the past has received funding from the billionaire Ricketts and Adelson families, said it “will proudly support his reelection and vigorously oppose candidates or groups that seek to challenge the senator.”
Club for Growth officials say Tillis’ past differences with the White House have made him vulnerable in a state where Trump is popular among Republicans. Last year, the senator was criticized by fellow Republicans for co-sponsoring legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. Earlier this year, Tillis wrote a Washington Post op-ed in which he announced his opposition to Trump’s national emergency declaration to build a border wall, though he ultimately voted in favor of it.
The Club for Growth tried to defeat the president in the 2016 GOP primary but has since refashioned itself into a pro-Trump outfit. On Friday, the group said it is still assessing whether to oppose Tillis.
“The Club for Growth has not made a determination if we will support a primary challenge to Sen. Tillis’ seat in North Carolina,” said Joe Kildea, a spokesman for the organization. “If we do endorse Walker, it will only be if we believe he is a stronger candidate in the general election.”
Republicans are not alone in trying to cut off oxygen to primary challengers. At a time when progressive insurgents are looking to unseat establishment incumbents, the House Democratic campaign arm has said it will no longer do business with vendors who are working to defeat sitting lawmakers.
The Club for Growth’s threat to Tillis puts some of the Republican Party’s incumbents, who typically treat their fellow colleagues with deference, in an awkward position. Arizona Sen. Martha McSally has previously used two consulting firms, Axiom Strategies and WPA Intelligence, who have done work for the Club for Growth and Walker.
WPA Intelligence oversaw the Club for Growth’s new North Carolina survey, though a person familiar with the arrangement said it was done through a firewalled division of the polling firm. Jeff Roe, founder of Axiom Strategies and a top McSally adviser, said his firm would not be involved in any effort to defeat Tillis.
McSally is one of the most endangered senators up for reelection in 2020. A spokeswoman for the senator suggested that she took the same no-tolerance approach as the party committee.
“Sen. McSally strongly supports the reelection of Thom Tillis,” said McSally spokeswoman Katie Waldman, “and has made it clear that she will not use any vendors who are involved in a primary against the senator or any other Republican senator in the 2020 cycle.”