Republican Establishment Declares Open Season on a Weakened Bannon
Posted December 15, 2017 1:47 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — A small group of conservative leaders had gathered in the Trump International Hotel last week for a friendly discussion about the year that was ending and their priorities for the year to come, when Steve Bannon spoke up.
“I’m not going to name names,” he snapped, looking around the room as he complained about being left virtually alone to defend Roy Moore, accused of sexually molesting and assaulting teenage girls, while the Republican leadership and Democrats bludgeoned the Alabama Senate candidate. “If we want to win,” he added, according to three people who were in the room, “We need to stop playing footsie with the establishment. They’re just going to string you along, pat you on your head, and send you on your way.”
Moore’s loss — which will send the first Democrat from Alabama to the Senate in 25 years and cut the Republicans’ already thin majority to a single seat — has only stoked Bannon’s discontent and stirred up fresh worry that the party is again descending into Tea Party-type spasms of self-defeating rage.
To avoid that, many Washington Republicans have no intention of patting Bannon on the head. They intend to kneecap him before he has the chance to recover.
“First is to dry up his money,” said Scott W. Reed, chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pillar of the Republican establishment, explaining how top Republicans in Washington were making a new round of calls to donors across the country to press them not to donate to Bannon or the candidates he supports.
“Two is to try and drive a wedge between him and Trump to the point where Trump is questioning him and his judgment,” Reed added. “You win, you win. You lose, you’re a loser. And that’s what Bannon has to wear around his neck now. A big L.”
In an interview after Moore’s defeat Tuesday, Bannon contended that he was playing a longer game to reshape the Republican Party around President Donald Trump’s agenda of reduced immigration, protectionist trade policy and military de-escalation. That effort, he said, would not be undone by a single defeat.
“Revolutions and civil wars take a long time. I never said Alabama was going to solve anything,” he said.
Bannon then pointed his finger at Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, and Republican senators like Richard Shelby of Alabama, who encouraged Republicans not to vote for Moore. Pointing to the 22,800 write-in votes cast — more votes than the margin of defeat — Bannon said, “Moore’s vote plus the write-ins, which Shelby and the Never Trumpers pushed, that’s victory.”
“This is 100 percent on the doorstep of Mitch McConnell,” he added. “Mitch McConnell did not mind a Democrat. In fact he pushed a Democrat.”
The recriminations over Alabama point to a problem that is deeper and more fundamental than the loss of a single Senate seat: The Republican Party, eight years after its Tea Party revolt, still cannot effectively channel the populist energy that is both the most animating and destructive force in its electorate.
The same angry politics that pit party leaders against grass-roots activists during the Obama years are threatening again to undermine the party’s fortunes in the upcoming midterm elections, as a slate of potential candidates on the far right emerges bearing similarities to the unpredictable and amateurish nominees that hurt Republicans then.
In 2010 and 2012, Republican Senate candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Richard Mourdock in Indiana defeated establishment picks in the primaries, only to go down to defeat in general elections that should have heavily favored the Republicans.
The ascendance of Trump, a man who exudes much of the anti-Washington animus that energizes his party, has not helped clarify the conflict. If anything, he has exacerbated it.
“There is a fundamental frustration with politics as usual that is at the heart of the Republican Party,” said Frank Cannon, a longtime conservative activist. “And that frustration is only greater now.”
Trump has filled his administration with many people who share his enmity toward government and have his same lack of political proficiency. But many others who advise him or work alongside him and his staff are longtime operators in the capital with deep loyalties to the party.
In Alabama, Trump worked both sides, backing the establishment’s candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, in the Republican primary, then disregarding his political advisers and campaigning for Moore, even after allegations surfaced that he had sexually assaulted or molested girls as young as 14. The tableau of Trump working at cross purposes with his populist allies was awkward. Before Trump endorsed Moore, White House aides pressured Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee and a friend of both Bannon and Trump, not to campaign for the former judge. As Palin rode in the back of a car to a Moore rally in Montgomery, Alabama, on Sept. 21, her cellphone rang. Seeing the Washington area code 202 flash on her caller ID she groused, “It must be the White House.” She ignored the call, said one person who had spoken with Palin.
Trump’s dilemma has also become an identity crisis for many in the conservative movement. Groups across the right, many of which have been intensely antagonistic toward party leadership, find themselves in a position to work on legislation that can actually pass in a Washington under total Republican control. For that, they need relationships with the leaders in the party that Bannon and other conservatives want to supplant.
In Alabama, most of the groups in the conservative coalition that usually defend Republican Senate candidates were conspicuously absent even before assault allegations surfaced. Anti-abortion groups, evangelical Christian organizations and even the National Rifle Association, which spent just $55,000 opposing Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones, were largely quiet.
The same pressure to cooperate with the establishment will complicate the runs of Bannon-backed Senate candidates like Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Kelli Ward in Arizona, whom Republicans are already criticizing as unfit for office, especially if they become the party’s nominees.
Conservative leaders who have been allies of Bannon’s said they worry that disputes over candidates will only weaken Republicans in an environment of Democratic enthusiasm that is already putting the party at a disadvantage.
The Democrats “are coming,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “They are coming in big, big numbers. And they are coming with an intensity that is roughly where we were in ’94 and 2010.” Cannon, who helped run campaigns in the early Tea Party primary races of 2009 and 2010, said he believes the party is even more divided now.
“Anytime you’re seeing someone from your own party gloat after eroding what is already a razor-thin majority,” he said, “that tells you something is fundamentally wrong.”
And Bannon seems far from chastened. He has already instructed writers at his Breitbart website to use the site as a battering ram against McConnell. Others in the conservative media are already on message, like radio host Mark Levin, who said the Alabama defeat was the result of “not-so-clever shenanigans and efforts by the not-so-smart McConnell.”
On Wednesday morning, Bannon listened and nodded approvingly as callers into his radio show described McConnell as “a snake” and a “travesty to the country,” happy to hear they were in agreement about where the blame for Alabama lay.
“These people,” he said, “are not to be messed with. They’re playing for keeps.”