National News

With a Nevada Senate Candidate’s Exit, the Bannon Revolt Fizzles

Posted March 16, 2018 10:49 p.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump persuaded a conservative businessman in Nevada to drop his primary challenge to a sitting Republican senator Friday, effectively ending a populist revolt that Steve Bannon once promised would scorch establishment Republican senators from coast to coast this year.

Danny Tarkanian, a perennial candidate who had Bannon’s backing, withdrew from his race against Sen. Dean Heller after a tweet from the president.

At Trump’s suggestion, he said he would run for an open seat in the House instead. His decision to drop out gives a significant boost to Heller, widely considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators on the ballot this year.

Earlier this week, another Bannon-backed candidate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Mississippi, dropped his challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker, opting instead to run for the seat left open by the retirement of the state’s senior senator, Thad Cochran.

By making clear he would support Heller and Wicker in their primaries, Trump effectively starved their challengers of the political oxygen they needed to win over conservative activists. In his tweet, Trump said it “would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s unity” if Heller could run unopposed.

In an interview, Tarkanian said he at first resisted Trump’s entreaties, which were conveyed to him by the president’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale. He said Trump had reached out to him by telephone last week, but the two never connected; he later told Parscale that if the president wanted him out, Trump should say so. So the president did, on Twitter.

Tarkanian, whose father, Jerry Tarkanian, was a legendary basketball coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he “did not think it was the right decision,” but he added: “I grew up in an athletic family. When the coach tells you to do something, many times you don’t agree with it, but it’s your responsibility to do it.”

It was a striking illustration of how much Trump has tightened his grip on the Republican Party: It is difficult to take on the party establishment when the face of the party is a president beloved by primary voters.

“This is one of those moments where the president of the United States has correctly and fully utilized the influence he has as the titular head of the Republican Party,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who is close to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. “It’s the hand of Donald Trump, recognizing that we cannot afford to lose Senate seats because we are fighting with ourselves.”

By ending their primaries against the two senators, McDaniel and Tarkanian snuffed out what was left of Bannon’s vision for remaking Congress with candidates in his populist mold. At one time, Bannon envisioned primaries in Mississippi, Nebraska, Arizona, Wyoming and Nevada.

Now he has none.

With Bannon exiled by the president and Trump getting along with congressional leaders and taking counsel from largely mainstream Republicans in the post-Bannon White House, there is little political space for right-wing insurgents to oust incumbents.

Perhaps no one is happier about that than McConnell, whom Bannon had once threatened to unseat. Chris Pack, spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee McConnell helped found to ensure the re-election of incumbents, was succinct Friday.

“Who is Steve Bannon?” Pack asked wryly.

Bannon declined to comment.

Democrats said Friday that the dynamics of the Nevada race had not changed much and that they remained optimistic about their chances to pick up a Senate seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton. Tarkanian, party strategists said, has already caused lasting damage to Heller by forcing him into positions he will later regret in his campaign against Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democrat whose seat Tarkanian is now seeking. (Tarkanian lost to Rosen by about 1 percentage point in 2016.)

Last year, for instance, Heller agonized for weeks over Republicans’ drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, before finally siding with party leadership and voting to undo President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Tarkanian pounced, accusing Heller of having “no convictions.” And Democrats are still reminding the senator of that vote.

“Nevadans learned today what Senator Heller got for selling out their health care and putting himself and his party first,” Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Friday, adding that “no amount of Trump tweets” could save him. While Trump is often described as the ultimate insurgent, he is driven far more by personal interaction and whether he feels respected than by any ideological impulses. Wicker and Heller have spent months courting the president and taking care to note, publicly and privately, that they are in his corner.

Their lobbying paid off. Trump reiterated his support for Wicker when McDaniel got in the race late last month, and on Friday the president showed Tarkanian to the door. McDaniel and Tarkanian had little choice but to give up their primaries: They were trying to carry a sort of pre-Trump message that was focused on purifying the Senate of moderation, hoping to link the incumbents to a flaccid establishment embodied by McConnell.

This approach proved effective at times during the Obama years and was nearly enough to lift McDaniel in 2014, when he came close to unseating Cochran.

But while McConnell is deeply unpopular among rank-and-file conservatives, he is not the animating force in today’s party — Trump is. While the challengers could easily persuade primary voters to oppose McConnell’s preferred candidates, it is a far more difficult task to get them to oppose their president.

The one Republican senator who may have lost his seat in a primary this year was the one who has become one of Trump’s most outspoken critics: Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is retiring. In that race, the establishment Republican, Rep. Martha McSally, is facing a primary challenge from Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, and Kelli Ward, an osteopathic physician and former state senator who drew backing from Bannon last fall.

Yet in another sign of how he is veering closer to the congressional leadership, Trump has not offered support to either of the hard-liners, something White House officials assured McSally he would not do before she agreed to enter the race.

And more recently, in another sign of Bannon’s diminished influence, Ward disavowed him. “I am distancing myself from Steve Bannon,” she told CNN in an interview in January, adding, “I support the president.”