Political News

McConnell Wryly Calls Bannon a ‘Genius’

Posted December 22, 2017 7:47 p.m. EST

Sen. Mitch McConnell took a sarcastic shot Friday at Stephen Bannon, telling reporters at an end-of-the-year news conference that Bannon’s “political genius” had cost the party a Senate seat in Alabama.

As he looked to the new year, on the heels of this week’s passage of a landmark tax overhaul that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday, McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, used most of the news conference to revisit what he called the “extraordinary” accomplishments of this year, and to sketch the broad outlines of his legislative agenda for early 2018.

He said he hoped that Democrats and Republicans would unite around an immigration bill that would protect young unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

But McConnell also turned to politics. He will have to contend next year with midterm elections — and that means contending with Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and a fiery populist who is working to elect Republicans in the mold of Trump by waging primary election challenges against some incumbent Republican senators or candidates backed by McConnell.

Complicating their charged relationship is the question of whose side Trump will take. McConnell expressed confidence that the president would back the candidates he picks, saying, “I believe the White House will be in the same place I am.”

In Arizona, for instance, Bannon is behind the candidacy of Kelli Ward, a doctor who lost a hard-fought primary race last year to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McConnell said Friday that he backs Rep. Martha McSally, though she has not yet formally announced her candidacy for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

And in Nevada, McConnell is supporting the incumbent Republican, Sen. Dean Heller, while Bannon is behind Danny Tarkanian, a businessman and serial candidate for public office. Analysts say Democrats have a shot of winning in both Arizona and Nevada. If they do, Republicans would lose their majority.

“Those two races are on a knife’s edge, and the wrong nominee takes you out of the game,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who is close to McConnell.

In Alabama, McConnell had backed Sen. Luther Strange, the Republican incumbent who filled the seat after its previous occupant, Jeff Sessions, became attorney general. Bannon supported Roy Moore, the controversial former judge who ultimately won the Republican primary — and was later accused of making inappropriate sexual advances toward teenagers.

Moore lost this month to Doug Jones, a Democrat. For McConnell, the result is that an already slim 52-48 majority became even slimmer; Republicans will have just 51 seats in the Senate, while Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them will have 49.

McConnell was asked Friday whether he blamed Bannon for the loss.

“Well, let me just say this,” McConnell replied, suppressing a sly smile. “The political genius on display of throwing away a seat in the reddest state in America is hard to ignore.”

McConnell still has painful memories of the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, in which Republicans nominated Tea Party candidates who could not appeal to a general election audience. So in 2015, McConnell helped create the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee aimed at protecting and expanding the Republican majority. He alluded to the fund in his remarks Friday.

“We continued with a different approach in 2016,” he said. “What was the difference? We didn’t nominate people who couldn’t win in November.”

The bad blood between McConnell and Bannon is no secret — they have been publicly feuding for months. In November, Bannon vowed to oust McConnell as majority leader, saying in an interview, “I have an objective that Mitch McConnell will not be majority leader,” adding that McConnell “has got to go.”

To that, McConnell replied, “Ha ha.”