WASHINGTON — Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince is considering a Republican primary challenge to Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a senior member of the Senate GOP leadership team, in a race that could pit the party’s establishment against insurgents fueled by allies of President Donald Trump.
Prince was in Wyoming this weekend to discuss a possible Senate campaign with family members and has been encouraged to run by Steve Bannon, a former top White House strategist to Trump, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private deliberations.
Prince’s potential candidacy was first reported by The New York Times. A Barrasso campaign spokesman declined comment and Prince did not immediately comment on the report.
Following the Republican failure to scrap Barack Obama’s health care law, Bannon has been recruiting populist Republican Senate candidates to counter the influence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has become the target of a simmering anti-incumbent mood. Barrasso is a close McConnell ally and would receive extensive support from the Senate GOP leader and the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm in a competitive primary.
Trump has expressed his displeasure with Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who is seeking re-election next year, and the White House has encouraged primary challengers in the state. McConnell’s ability to protect vulnerable Republican senators, meanwhile, has been thrown into question since Sen. Luther Strange’s loss to conservative firebrand Roy Moore in a Senate GOP runoff in Alabama.
Prince, a former Navy SEAL, rose to prominence during the Iraq war when his private security company received lucrative government contracts and came under scrutiny when several Blackwater employees were involved in the shooting deaths of 14 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
Four former Blackwater employees were convicted on federal charges in 2014 — one for murder and the others for voluntary manslaughter. But an appeals court in August ordered a new trial for the defendant convicted of murder and re-sentencings for the defendants convicted of manslaughter.
Prince is also the founder of Frontier Resource Group, a private equity firm, and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party.
The wealthy military contractor has maintained ties to Trump officials and contributed $250,000 to Trump’s campaign, the national party and a pro-Trump super PAC led by Rebekah Mercer, a top Republican donor and confidante of Bannon.
Prince was approached by some of Trump advisers during the summer to develop proposals for Afghanistan to gradually swap out U.S. troops and put military contractors in their place. That plan was not adopted by Trump and his military advisers.
In order to run for Senate, Prince would need to establish residency in Wyoming. He lives in Middleburg, Va., but his family owns a large ranch in the state’s Wapiti Valley and he has had an address in the area previously.