A war of words between Donald Trump and prominent Senate Republicans erupted into public view this week. But the main battle is already taking place over a crucial U.S. Senate seat that is turning into a litmus test of GOP attitudes towards the president.
In Arizona, the president’s wealthiest allies are pouring in hundreds of thousands of dollars into efforts to unseat Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken, conservative Trump critic. Those resources may not be enough, as it’s unclear if Flake’s challenger has the political prowess or campaign architecture to unseat the freshman incumbent.
That is, unless Trump himself intervenes.
The president has pondered backing Flake’s challenger, former state senator Kelli Ward, and has even privately floated the possibility of putting millions of dollars in his own money behind her primary challenge. It would be a stunning move against a sitting lawmaker of Trump’s own party. But the president is already heading in that direction.
Trump has grown increasingly disenchanted with Senate Republicans and the feelings appear to be mutual.
On Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chastised the president’s “excessive expectations” for the success of his legislative agenda. Trump gave the Kentucky Republican a nice little treat later that evening when he tweeted his support for McConnell-backed Sen. Luther Strange for the Alabama GOP primary next week. But by the next morning, the president was showing his discontent, calling McConnell out by name in a tweet questioning his commitment to legislation to roll back Obamacare—legislation that failed late last month due to the defections of three Republican senators. White House social media director Dan Scavino and Fox News host Sean Hannity piled on with their own tweets hitting McConnell for the same legislative failure.
And it’s not just health care that is a flare point. Tough words have also been exchanged on foreign policy after the president’s ad-libbed threats against North Korea on Tuesday. Asked about Trump’s pledge of “fire and fury” if Pyongyang persists in its nuclear saber-rattling, Sen. John McCain, Flake’s Arizona colleague, said of the president: “I don't know what he's saying and I've long ago given up trying to interpret what he says."
Flake’s criticism of Trump, and the president's’ supporters’ reciprocation of it, has intensified this month after the release of the Senator’s new book, The Conscience of a Conservative. The book laces into Trump and his enablers, particular in the Republican Party, and has fueled efforts by Trump loyalists to replace a lawmaker they view as a Never Trump apostate.
Verbal jousting between the White House and Senate officials from the same party is not particularly new, though traditionally it comes in the form of anonymous, back-stabby quotes from top aides and rarely from the principles themselves. The willingness of some of Trump’s wealthiest and most vocal allies to exact tangible consequences for Republican Senators who cross the president, however, represents a uniquely bitter intra-party volley.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, one of Trump’s top financial backers during the 2016 election, announced on Wednesday that he will make a $300,000 contribution to KelliPAC, a super PAC boosting Ward’s primary campaign.
The money will jumpstart a dormant political operation. KelliPAC didn’t report a dime of income in the first half of 2017, and has just over $7,000 cash on hand. It’s also run by a political operative, chairman Doug McKee, who copped to his “misunderstanding” of basic campaign finance reporting rules in a June letter to the Federal Election Commission attempting to explain discrepancies in its financial reporting during the previous election cycle.
Mercer and his wife backed the same group during Ward’s 2016 primary challenge to McCain, donating more than 90% of KelliPAC’s total income for the cycle. The bulk of that money, $450,000 in a single expenditure, went back to the Mercers through their data firm, Cambridge Analytica, which is also a major Trump campaign vendor. Even with the money, Ward fell short by about 12 points.
This go around, Ward has staffed her campaign with amateur Republican operatives who will have an uphill climb if they hope to take on the GOP political apparatus expected to back Flake in his reelection bid. To support her challenge, she has turned to a network of shoestring political and media groups staffed by former Breitbart News writers, a convicted felon, and a former contributor to a state-owned Russian propaganda organ.
At the helm is Dustin Stockton, Ward’s chief strategist. A one-time tea party activist from Nevada, Stockton is an outspoken Trump supporter who has sought to push the Republican Party rightward through his political group, Western Representation PAC. Stockton’s girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, a former Breitbart reporter, serves as Ward’s press secretary. Western Representation PAC’s website lists her as the group’s spokeswoman.
As it retooled for the Trump era, the PAC brought on former Breitbart writer Patrick Howley and Bruce Carter, a Bernie Sanders activist-turned-Trump supporter. Carter has served time in federal prison on weapons and money laundering charges, and has been accused of misusing government grant money designed to fund meals for low income children.
As part of its early-2017 Trump-era rebranding, Western Representation PAC launched a new initiative called the America First Project and an accompanying news organization, Big League Politics. With Howley as its editor in chief, the site is Breitbart-esque in its political outlook, but even more aggressively conspiratorial in its pursuit of dirt on the president’s perceived antagonists.
Like Breitbart—and Trump—Big League Politics is outwardly hostile to political institutions, and Republicans in particular, that it sees as agents of the status quo and obstacles to the nationalist-populist political insurgency embodied by the president and his supporters.
Between that approach and the site’s ties to her senior campaign staffers, Kelli Ward knew where to turn when she was looking for a place to attack her political rivals.
Late last month, Ward suggested that McCain, who had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, should resign from his post, and that Arizona’s governor should appoint her in his stead. The comments quickly drew criticism, and Ward turned to Big League Politics to play defense. The site ran an exclusive interview in which she stood by the comments. The resulting story was written by Cassandra Fairbanks, a Big League Politics contributor who formerly wrote for the state-owned Russian media organ Sputnik.
A couple weeks later, Fairbanks penned another friendly post on Ward. It copied the text of a USA Today column by Ward, who declared, “There is no future for weak conservatives.” Fairbanks made sure to plug her Flake challenge. “With his plummeting approval numbers, the ‘America First’ candidate is very much in the game,” Fairbanks wrote.
Neither of those articles mentioned that Ward employs Big League Politics’ founder and former chief executive—Stockton’s twitter account identified him as the site’s CEO until May—or that the political group that birthed the site had received its largest contribution of the cycle from Ward’s husband.
Its second largest donor this year, Gary Kompothecras, is the producer of the MTV reality show Siesta Key. His son, a contestant on the show, recently came under fire for illegally shooting a hammerhead shark in Florida and posing with it for a photo that he posted on social media.
He can be seen in the photo wearing the Trump signature: a “Make America Great Again” hat.
With reporting by Andrew Desiderio