Erik Prince, a prominent security contractor based in Virginia with strong connections to President Donald Trump’s administration, is considering a run against Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso next year, several media outlets have reported.
Barrasso, Casper surgeon, is a powerful member of the Republican Senate leadership, holding the fourth-ranking position in the chamber as the chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
While he reliably supports Republican policies and has recently been a vocal advocate in the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Barrasso is also closely associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who has earned the wrath of populist leaders in the conservative movement over claims that he has been unable to pass major legislation since Trump took office and that he is more loyal to the Republican establishment than to the president.
The New York Times reported that Trump campaign manager and adviser Steve Bannon, considered a leader of the so-called “alt-right,” was encouraging Prince to challenge Barrasso. Bannon stepped down from his White House role in August and returned to conservative media outlet Breitbart, which pushes a brand of politics associated with economic populism and white supremacist nationalism.
Both The New York Times and Associated Press reported Sunday that Prince and his family traveled to Wyoming this weekend to explore ways to establish residency, a necessary step in order to run against Barrasso.
While Prince lives in Middleburg, Virginia, his family owns a ranch in Wapiti, according to the AP. The Times reported that he maintained an address in the area during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
A former Navy SEAL, Prince is the founder of private security contractor Blackwater, which gained a notorious reputation after several of the company’s employees who were working in Iraq killed 17 civilians while guarding an American government convoy. Four of the guards were subsequently convicted in U.S. courts on murder, manslaughter and weapon charges.
Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is currently chairman of Frontier Services Group. Prince did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to the company Sunday afternoon.
Prince served as an informal adviser to the Trump transition team but he has not extensively discussed his political views publicly, other than continuing to promote the use of mercenary forces in American conflicts overseas.
During a 2013 interview with Talking Points Memo, Prince said he supported more efficient government spending.
“I think it’s very important to bring some budget sanity back to how America spends its money on defense, on intelligence, on everything, including social programs. I want to take away the notion that it’s unpatriotic to cut the defense budget because there’s plenty of room to do it to make it more efficient,” Prince said.
“You know, can the right and the left then cut the grand bargain to do social programs, reduce defense spending, just cut everything, and have the country live within its means and really unleash the entrepreneur?”
But Prince also said he had no plans to run for public office.
“I have zero interest in being involved in the politics of Washington,” he said.
Setting aside his role at the helm of scandal-plagued Blackwater, now known as Academi, Prince would bring a military background and the ability to largely self-fund a political campaign to the Wyoming Senate contest.
Barrasso, who was appointed to an open Senate seat in 2007 and first won election to the post the next year, remains popular with Wyomingites. He has a 56 percent approval rating among voters in the state, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult in July. Just 18 percent disapproved of his job performance.
While The Times reported that Bannon is encouraging Prince as part of a plan to increase the number of Congressional lawmakers friendly to Trump, Barrasso has voted in-line with Trump’s positions on legislation 95.9 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.
Trump was reportedly interested in appointing Barrasso as secretary of Health and Human Services earlier this month, viewing him as an effective advocate of the president’s positions on health care.
Barrasso withdrew his name from consideration for the post, saying he could best serve the people of Wyoming and support Trump’s agenda by remaining in the Senate.
But Trump’s support for a congressional candidate has proven insufficient to avoid a challenge from the right. Sen. Luther Strange, R-Alabama, lost a primary contest to fringe right-wing candidate Roy Moore last month despite receiving Trump’s endorsement.
Moore was backed by Bannon and several other Trump supporters who claimed Strange was too close to the GOP establishment.
Barrasso chief of staff Dan Kunsman said Sunday that the senator had “nothing to add” to the reports that Prince was considering a run for his seat.
Prince faces challenges
If Prince does establish residency in Wyoming and takes a shot at an incumbent Republican, it would be reminiscent of Liz Cheney’s 2014 bid to unseat Wyoming’s other U.S. Senator, Mike Enzi.
Cheney, the daughter of former Wyoming U.S. House representative and vice president Dick Cheney, relocated from Virginia to Wilson to mount what proved to be a short-lived bid against Enzi. Cheney withdrew from the race, citing family issues, after drawing accusations of carpetbagging from many voters in the state.
Cheney generated significant controversy by relocating to Wyoming to run for office, despite spending some of her youth in Casper and her father’s deep ties to the state.
She was elected to Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat last year.
Prince lacks even the roots to Wyoming that Cheney possesses, something that could hinder him in a run against Barrasso.
“The credentials of being a Wyoming native ... still carries a lot of weight,” lobbyist and political observer Marguerite Herman noted in an interview about state politics earlier this year.
Barrasso was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Wyoming shortly after finishing his medical education. Barrasso has served president of Wyoming Medical Society and occasionally works as a doctor at rodeos around the state.
He serves on several Senate committees important to issues facing Wyoming, including Environment and Public Works and Indian Affairs.
The primary for the 2018 election is Aug. 21 and the general election is Nov. 6.
This article has been corrected to update Cheney's time spent living in Wyoming.