The rumblings of a prospective Republican primary challenge to Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso are premised on the notion that as part of Senate leadership, and as a supporter of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Barrasso is somehow obstructing President Donald Trump’s agenda.
But — as Barrasso has taken to highlighting of late — Trump appears to like Barrasso.
Last week, Trump called Barrasso and several other incumbent Republican senators running for reelection next year to offer his support amid attacks by his former chief advisor and current Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon.
A Senate Republican aide says President Donald Trump has called three Republican senators targeted by his former top adviser Steve Bannon and offered his support for their re-election efforts. The calls were made to Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. They come as Bannon is waging a campaign against the GOP establishment and trying to find primary opponents to challenge Republican senators running for re-election.
Earlier this month, Barrasso said that the White House reached out to him about a cabinet position. Trump appreciated Barrasso’s fierce attacks on the Affordable Care Act, according to media reports.
Yet Bannon, who was forced out of the administration in August, is still determined to unseat Barrasso and other incumbent Republicans who don’t appear to be at odds with Trump.
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One might think that in a Wyoming primary race where a Bannon-backed candidate might frame Barrasso as anti-Trump, the president’s support for Barrasso would settle the matter.
But an expert in national Congressional races said that may not be the case. While many voters remain loyal to Trump himself, it is not clear whether that affinity is transferable.
“Trump might not have that much juice,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
The president notably endorsed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange R-Alabama, in a September GOP primary runoff that Strange ended up losing.
But that hasn’t stopped Barrasso from highlighting his relationship with Trump. In his capacity as chair of the Republican Policy Committee, Barrasso invited Trump to a working lunch with GOP senators — widely promoting the invitation.
Barrasso’s office sent out a press release headlined, “President Trump Accepts Barrasso’s Invitation to Address GOP Senators Tuesday.” The statement added that Barrasso “noted the president said he was eager to attend the policy lunch.”
A social media post touted the invitation with a photograph of Barrasso and Trump together.
“Thank you @POTUS for accepting my invitation,” Barrasso wrote.
This week, Barrasso told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that the meeting had gone well and that Trump really liked him.
“I had a chance to visit with the president beforehand and then walk into the meeting with the president,” Barrasso said. “He’s always been very supportive of me in public and in private.”
That came two weeks after both Jackson-based financier and philanthropist Foster Friess and founder of notorious private security contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, who does not live in Wyoming, both said they were exploring running for Barrasso’s seat next year.
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Political observers in the Cowboy State were largely confused as to why Barrasso had suddenly come under attack, but said they were confident that he could likely withstand primary challengers.
Duffy agreed but said Bannon is almost certain to find a candidate to run against Barrasso and use his connections to the wealthy and conservative Mercer family to fund attacks on Barrasso simply because he is an incumbent senator and part of Senate leadership.
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That means even if Friess and Prince decide not to run someone else will.
“I think that Bannon’s own pride will require him to find these candidates in every one of these races and my guess is if these two say no he’ll keep looking,” she said.
Even with money in the bank and good standing across the state, Barrasso should stay on his toes, Duffy cautioned. That’s because the race is unlikely to be about his policies or record and instead will turn on voters’ discontent with Washington.
“When it’s about something that is fueled by anger and it’s about process more than ideology then you take nothing for granted,” she said.