Bannon's war against McConnell just lost its biggest battle

Mitch McConnell, Steve Bannon. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: James Lawler Duggan/Reuters; Nicole Craine/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Mitch McConnell, Steve Bannon. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: James Lawler Duggan/Reuters; Nicole Craine/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

DOTHAN, Ala. — Steve Bannon insisted Monday night here at Roy Moore’s final rally before Alabama’s special election that Donald Trump’s policies, and his own, were of enormous benefit to people of color in America.

“[Trump] stopped mass illegal immigration. The No. 1 beneficiary of that is the Hispanic and black working class, because they don’t have to compete with illegal alien labor,” Bannon thundered. “Ethno-nationalism has got nothing to do with it, folks!”

It’s easy to get carried away in the heat of a campaign, but Bannon was indulging in an extreme flight of hubris, even for him, in trying to sell black voters on a candidate who had a long record of hostility to civil rights and who in September dated America’s greatest period to before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

Alabama’s black voters didn’t show much confusion about who they thought had their best interests in mind. Democrat Doug Jones got 96 percent of the African-American vote Tuesday, a point higher than President Barack Obama received when he won reelection in 2012.

Bannon’s power has always been more mirage than reality, and in taking on the entire Republican establishment, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he was in way over his head. And after his humiliating pratfall Tuesday night, Bannon’s political enemies wasted no time in cleaving him from the herd, isolating President Trump from his increasingly toxic former associate.

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon at a campaign event for Senate candidate Roy Moore in Fairhope, Ala., Dec. 5, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Bannon had “dragged” Trump “into his fiasco,” said one ally of McConnell, Steven Law, president of the conservative super-PAC American Crossroads. Another, McConnell’s former chief of staff Josh Holmes, showed his loyalty by praising the “perfect tone” of Trump’s response to the Alabama result.

By Wednesday morning, Trump was scrambling to align himself with McConnell, who had kept a discreet distance from Moore. “If last night’s election proved anything, it proved that we need to put up GREAT Republican candidates to increase the razor thin margins in both the House and the Senate,” the president tweeted.

New York Republican Rep. Peter King’s comment that Bannon looked like a “disheveled drunk” was merely a piling on.

When Bannon left the White House last August and immediately got behind Moore, it looked like an opportunistic but shrewd move to gain credit for an electoral win that was going to happen with or without his help. When Moore won the Republican primary over incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, Bannon looked, for a time, like a genius. But he grievously miscalculated, and Moore’s loss is now an anvil around his neck.

It is likely that he has lost his best shot at becoming a serious political figure with real influence. Bannon’s Breitbart News will remain a loud presence among a segment of Trump’s base — although Republican megadonor Robert Mercer is no longer supporting it, and is distancing himself from Bannon personally. If McConnell’s lieutenants can cement their relationship with Trump, and the president continues to keep his former adviser at arm’s length, that will leave Bannon badly wounded.

The question now is how Bannon can regain his footing. Just two months ago, a Bannon ally bragged that incumbent Republicans across the country in the Senate would face primary opponents. “Nobody’s safe,” the unnamed Bannon source said. That was an overstatement then, and seems increasingly like a hollow boast.

Corey Stewart
Corey Stewart speaks in Richmond, Va., March 4, 2017. (Photo: P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

One of the Republican insurgents who had hoped to draft behind a Moore win, Corey Stewart, was at the Moore rally on Monday night. But another, Chris McDaniel of Mississippi, was not, even though his state is right next door to Alabama.

That contrast between Stewart and McDaniel demonstrates their relative political seriousness. McDaniel, who is sometimes referred to as “Chris McKlaniel” by his Republican antagonists in Mississippi in reference to what they suspect are his white supremacist views, narrowly lost the 2014 U.S. Senate primary to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. He is considering a run against the state’s other incumbent Republican senator, Roger Wicker.

But Wicker is a far more able candidate than Cochran, and will not be caught napping by McDaniel. The Mississippi GOP establishment will make sure of that, especially after their 2014 scare. It’s likely that McDaniel will pass on a run against Wicker and wait to see if Cochran’s seat opens up.

Stewart, on the other hand, has little chance of defeating incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a state that just voted overwhelmingly for another Democratic governor in an off-year election.

Besides those two races, Bannon may try to go after the Senate seat being vacated by Arizona’s Jeff Flake. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican who has been critical of Trump, is the establishment-friendly candidate; Bannon is backing Kelli Ward, a physician who has dabbled in conspiracy theories and has drawn fire from McConnell’s super-Pac, the Senate Leadership Fund, which labeled her “crazy.” Expect McConnell and his allies to try to paint Ward as another Roy Moore — i.e., an extremist who could cost the party a winnable seat.

Steve Bannon, right, with Kelli Ward
Steve Bannon, right, exits the stage after introducing Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward on Oct. 17, 2017, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, may retire, but that state has proved resistant to Trumpism. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, is considering a run for the seat if Hatch steps aside. He would be an overwhelming favorite to win.

There has been talk of Bannon recruiting the controversial founder of the Blackwater security firm, Erik Prince, to run against Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., but Barrasso is popular in the state and has a good relationship with Trump.

Former New York Rep. Michael Grimm, who had a high-profile meeting with Bannon in the fall, is less appealing after the Moore fiasco. Does Bannon want to go from backing an accused child molester to a convicted felon who served seven months in prison for tax fraud? And it’s not clear Grimm has much of a chance to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Dan Donovan anyway.

The overall message from the McConnell wing of the GOP now is that Bannon’s attempt to shake things up is a vanity project, and a deeply disruptive one at that. Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, argued that for Trump and the GOP to survive the 2018 elections with their majorities intact, they will have to jettison Bannon.

“A complete break from Bannonism in GOP primaries can reunite the party behind the Trump agenda and salvage the midterms,” Holmes told Axios.

And Moore’s loss, resulting in a Democrat winning in one of the most conservative states in the country, is all the evidence McConnell needs to make his case.


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