Bannon boosts Flake challenger, snubs Trump plea to back off

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Former presidential strategist Steve Bannon doubled down on his criticism of the GOP establishment at a Tuesday night fundraiser for a challenger to Arizona's incumbent Sen. Jeff Flake.

Bannon heaped disdain on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other incumbent Republicans, saying they failed President Donald Trump by not backing his agenda and are openly critical of their own president.

"If you saw how they try to rip him apart every day, how they are trying to destroy him every day," Bannon said. "And yes, I'm talking about Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans."

Senate candidate Kelli Ward held a campaign kickoff in Scottsdale, Arizona, headlined by Bannon and talk show host Laura Ingraham.

>>VIDEO: Kelli Ward for Senate kickoff event

Bannon is promoting a field of primary challengers to take on incumbent Republicans in Congress, especially the Senate. He has said he plans to recruit challengers for every GOP senator standing for re-election next year except Ted Cruz of Texas.

"These people hold you in contempt," he said of Washington insiders.

Bannon wasn't following the game plan Trump seemed to advocate on Monday, when he said during an appearance with McConnell that he he would try to discourage Bannon from going after all Republican senators.

"Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they're great people," Trump said during a joint news conference with McConnell.

Arizona's Flake, seeking a second term, has been among the Senate Republicans' most outspoken Trump critics and is being targeted by Ward and the Great America PAC, which announced Monday it would back her over Flake.

Flake isn't letting on that he's overly worried about his re-election chances.

"I've had tough primaries almost every time I've run, mostly because of the position I've taken on immigration," he told The Associated Press in an interview after his own Scottsdale fundraiser last week. "People will say, 'Well I can get to the right of Jeff on immigration.' But we came out all right."

Flake has another fundraiser set for Thursday hosted by major Arizona donors, including auto dealership magnate Jim Click and Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. The event featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice comes after Sen. Marco Rubio came to back him last week.

"I believe Jeff Flake is as principled a conservative as there is," Rubio said in an interview. "He believes in free enterprise, limited government, a strong America, he believes in the Constitution."

At least one Republican senator who has been critical of Trump was dismissive of Bannon and his actions.

"He's not on my radar. It's not relevant to what I'm doing," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has announced he won't seek re-election.

The Bannon-backed group also announced Monday it was supporting retired Marine Kevin Nicholson in Wisconsin over state Sen. Leah Vukmir in the GOP primary to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat seeking her second term.

Nicholson, a former Democrat, is among a list of outsiders Bannon is backing, including Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who lost his challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014.

The group backed Roy Moore in his Alabama runoff with Sen. Luther Strange, the preferred candidate of McConnell. Moore defeated Strange.

Bannon pointed to that race and to Corker's decision not to seek re-election in his speech before about 500 Ward supporters Tuesday.

"The last couple of days Mitch has been saying, hey you gotta win. Winners make policy, losers go home," Bannon said. "Note to self, Mitch: Big Luther Strange and little Bobby Corker are both going home. The people of Alabama and the people of Tennessee have spoken."

A key goal of Bannon's is to see McConnell dumped as Senate GOP leader, while also getting the president's agenda, including the dismantling of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and major tax cuts, enacted.

A spokesman echoed Nicholson's support for Senate term limits "including leadership." But he declined to say whether the candidate had pledged to Bannon that he would oppose McConnell as majority leader, should he win the primary and beat Baldwin.

Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. AP reporter Scott Bauer contributed from Madison, Wisconsin.