Washington — Republicans face a problem as they try to defend a slim majority in the Senate and win races elsewhere: Insurgent primary candidates are trying to lay claim to President Donald Trump’s mantle, and knock out the establishment’s choices.

The latest case is in Nevada, where endangered GOP incumbent Sen. Dean Heller drew a challenge Tuesday from businessman and repeat failed candidate Danny Tarkanian, who announced his bid in an early morning Fox News Channel appearance seemingly aimed at an audience of one: the president himself.

“We’re never going to make America great again unless we have senators in office that fully support President Trump and his America-first agenda,” Tarkanian said.

Heller opposed early versions of Trump-backed health care legislation in the Senate before voting for a final version that failed anyway.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the official Senate GOP campaign arm, quickly announced its support for Heller, and a super PAC backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., committed to spending what it takes to support him and other GOP incumbents.

The dynamic mirrors longstanding clashes between the GOP’s establishment and activist wings, which played out disastrously in 2010 and 2012 when hard-core conservatives won Senate primaries but went on to lose to Democrats. McConnell and his allies vowed never to let that happen again and have subsequently intervened in primaries when necessary to produce candidates who could win.

The X factor now is the appeal Trump may hold to Republican primary voters.

Heller is hardly alone.

Next door in Arizona, GOP incumbent Sen. Jeff Flake, another Trump skeptic during last year’s campaign, faces at least one challenge from the right in conservative Kelli Ward.

In each case, to their annoyance, establishment-aligned Republicans face the prospect of spending millions to protect an incumbent from a challenger who might have a tough time getting out of the general election. Republicans hold a 52-48 Senate majority and are playing offense against Democratic incumbents in 10 states Trump won.

A former GOP Senate campaign official with knowledge of the situation said the NRSC has sought help from the Trump White House on Senate races but those requests went unanswered under the leadership of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, leading to widespread frustration. The former campaign official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party matters.

While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have said they want to increase the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the White House’s approach to contentious primaries isn’t clear yet.

As for Heller, he is already walking the Trump tightrope.

Heller’s initial denunciation of a Senate plan to repeal and replace Obamacare drew the ire of a political nonprofit promoting Trump’s agenda.


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