WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in the Senate are facing increasingly vocal pressure from some of the party’s wealthy contributors to chalk up a legislative win by quickly passing tax cuts — or see campaign contributions dwindle or shift to their challengers in next year’s midterm elections.
Donor frustration centers on the GOP’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a top target of Republican candidates and leaders ever since it became law seven years ago. The Senate’s attempts to kill the law, faltered this year after defections from several Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain.
On Wednesday, the intraparty feuding escalated when a coalition of conservative leaders, including Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, called on Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, and his leadership team to step aside, saying they "have done nothing" this year to advance conservative policies.
Adding to Republican leaders’ worries: former White House strategist Stephen Bannon’s burgeoning effort to lead an insurgency to oppose McConnell. Bannon, who backed former Alabama judge Roy Moore’s successful primary win over McConnell-backed Sen. Luther Strange last month, is seeking to recruit donors to his cause and is rapidly expanding the list of incumbent senators he hopes to topple.
The party infighting, shaping up as the GOP’s most serious political rupture in years, could imperil Republicans’ hopes of retaining their four-seat Senate majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, said he's seen "nothing in my career that has approached this level of internecine warfare."
"Everybody's frustrated," he said. "The president is frustrated. Senators and congressmen are frustrated. It seems to be very difficult to develop a majority coalition for much of anything so far."
The drive to pass tax cuts before year's end will take center stage this week at an invitation-only retreat in New York where conservative donors aligned with billionaire Charles Koch will gather with top Koch operatives to craft their political and policy strategy for the midterms.
Vice President Pence, who has close ties to Koch's political empire, will deliver the keynote address. His remarks come less than two weeks after his chief of staff Nick Ayers urged another group of Republican contributors to consider funding a “purge” of Republican senators who fail to advance President Trump's agenda, according to an audio recording obtained by Politico.
Killing the 2010 health-care law was “certainly something that activists and the American people anticipated after Republicans ran on repealing Obamacare for multiple cycles,” said James Davis, a top spokesman for the Koch network.
“The fact that they haven’t done that puts them under even more pressure to deliver tax reform by the end of this year,” Davis said.
The Senate is expected to vote soon on a budget blueprint that would pave the way for the tax overhaul.
Koch groups have pledged to spend up to $400 million on policy and political advocacy during the 2018 election cycle and already have plowed millions of dollars into campaign to support a Trump tax blueprint.
Most Koch officials have not attacked Republicans directly, training their firepower on Democratic incumbents. Americans for Prosperity, Koch’s main activist arm, recently unleashed a $4.5 million advertising campaign on taxes that targets Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
But some of individual donors in the Koch network make no secret of their displeasure with the party’s leaders.
“We’re very, very, very dissatisfied with the Senate and with Senate leadership,” said Doug Deason, a Dallas investor. He and his father Darwin Deason, an IT billionaire, are big players in Texas Republican political circles and support Trump.
Deason criticized McConnell, saying the Kentucky Republican “has no spine” and should lose his position as the Senate's leader after "no" votes from GOP senators helped sink Obamacare repeal efforts.
Deason was equally blunt in his criticism of McCain, saying the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, should resign from the Senate to focus on his battle with brain cancer.
“He is old and tired, and it’s time for him to move on,” Deason said. “We don’t need him wasting that seat.”
An aide to McCain did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and officials in McConnell's office referred questions to the party groups responsible for Senate campaigns. Officials with the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment.
For all the tough talk, Deason said he is not yet willing to back insurgents who want to take on sitting Republicans, noting that the incumbents who have drawn most of his ire are not on the ballot next year.
Instead, he said he is likely to help Republicans working to knock out Democrats, including Josh Mandel, the Ohio state treasurer who hopes to topple two-term Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Kevin Nicholson, a U.S. Marine veteran seeking to challenge Baldwin.
Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman and one of the state's most influential Republican donors, said it's hard to blame McConnell for Congress' failure to pass major legislation, given the GOP's slim majority in the Senate and a united wall of opposition from Democrats.
"The solution is to elect more conservative senators so that you can't be held hostage by two or three senators," he said. Pope said he has not yet donated to any Senate Republican candidates and will make his decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Bannon, however, already has declared open war on the party's establishment. He has taken aim at Republican incumbents, such as Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.
Bannon aides say his of list of 2018 targets is growing.
“We’re in the process of finding conservative-populist candidates to launch a hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” Andrew Surabian, a top aide to Bannon and a senior adviser to the Great America Alliance, a nonprofit political group now aligned with Bannon.
“Steve is looking to reshape the Republican Party as an unabashedly populist, conservative and America First-styled political party,” Surabian said. “He’s playing to win.”
Republicans went into this election cycle with a favorable electoral map.
Of the 33 seats up for re-election 2015, Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them account for 25. Ten Senate Democrats are seeking re-election in states won by Trump last year.
But Trump himself has displayed his fury with Republicans in the Senate, attacking McConnell on Twitter over the failure to dismantle the health care law.
Senate Republican fundraising plummeted as efforts to repeal Obamacare stumbled, falling from the $7 million that NRSC raised in March — its biggest monthly haul for a non-election year — to $2.1 million in August, Federal Election Commission records show.
"Donald Trump has split the Republican party in two: the people who consider themselves more supporters of Donald Trump than of the Republican Party and the people who consider themselves more supporters of the Republican Party than of Donald Trump," said Ayres, the Republican pollster.
"But neither wing of the party can win elections or govern without the other," he said.
Contributing: Eliza Collins