Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, isn’t just talking up candidates who oppose Establishment Republicans in House and Senate races.
He appears to be playing the game of the Establishment, putting his money — and other people’s money — where his mouth is.
Bannon flew to Atlanta the week of October 9 to talk money and politics with a major Republican donor, Bernie Marcus, according to Politico. Marcus has sent millions of dollars to Republican Senate PACs and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's committees. But Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot, has only seen failure from the GOP-led Senate.
Bannon's meeting with donors shows he is deadly serious about taking down some of McConnell's top choices for Senate in 2018. Bannon is reportedly impatient with McConnell, who he believes is stalling President Donald Trump's populist conservative agenda.
The president's former chief strategist is targeting such incumbents as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a top Trump critic, whose poll numbers are anemic as he heads into his first re-election battle in 2018. Flake is trailing Dr. Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator.
So far, Bannon and his allies have not disclosed how much money they have for their various political action committees. But as executive chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon is one of three men running an organization that has major funding from the Mercer family of New York. The Mercers stand by Bannon and were major funders of Trump's campaign.
It is likely Bannon could woo Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire and GOP mega-donor. But some donors are not interested in picking off GOP incumbents in 2018 primary battles. Louis DeJoy of North Carolina in particular said as much to Politico — although he admitted he is frustrated.
Another sign of frustration is money coming into the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). After the summer legislative doldrums, contributions from big donors decreased.
"Donors are furious," The New York Times quoted Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chief of the NRSC, as saying last month, to fellow senators. "We haven't kept our promise."
It means Bannon could have access to donors, siphoning money away from McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He could, in effect, run a "shadow" Republican congressional committee, to freeze out moderates and confound Establishment types.
Up to now, it's all to Bannon's advantage. And Bannon can claim the first scalp. He backed Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, over Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) in a special primary election on September 26. Moore easily beat Strange, who had been appointed to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who left to run Trump's Department of Justice.
Before the special election, Strange, a conservative, admitted he was hurt by the Senate's two-time failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, over the summer. Moore now faces Democrat Doug Jones on December 12, and some polls have it close. The close polls, far from an actual result, still have Republicans warning that Bannon's moves risk costing the Republicans the Senate majority.
Still, Bannon's supporters say Bannon is putting the GOP on notice.
"[The Establishment Republicans] deserve it," said Jeffrey Lord, a former assistant political director to President Ronald Reagan and a long-time contributor to The American Spectator. "In my view, their conduct plus that of former House Speaker John Boehner nominated and then elected Trump in the first place."
Lord believes the GOP-led Congress still has not gotten the message from the voters.
"[Bannon] is at the front in a battle between [the] GOP base and the GOP Establishment that goes back at least to the late 1940s," said Lord, in an email to LifeZette. "Former President Ronald Reagan and Trump personify the battle. So, particularly in light of what 'winning' has not produced, [Bannon] is doing a very good thing."
But conservative Republicans who have ties to both the Establishment and the Trump base fret.
"I share the deep frustration that the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has failed legislatively in the first 10 months of 2017," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and the chairman of the Travis County GOP in Texas. "But the largest beneficiary of Bannon’s efforts in the Senate are the Democrats. The Republican margin is so narrow in the Senate, and the resources for competitive races are in such demand, the only responsible path is to direct all available dollars to win Democratic-held seats, especially the 10 in states that Trump won in November, that have Democratic incumbents facing re-election in 2018."
In 2018, there are 34 seats up, of which 25 are held by Democrats, according to Real Clear Politics. Since the GOP has 52 Senate seats, the Democrats will need a net gain of three seats to win control of the chamber. It's a small net win, but still difficult math, given that the Republicans will target weak Democratic senators in Trump-won states, such as North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri.
But Democrats have used GOP primary fights for Senate seats to their advantage before. In 2010, Republicans nominated three conservatives over more moderate choices in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado, and then lost open seats. In 2012, GOP voters tossed out an incumbent moderate Republican in Indiana — Richard Lugar — and nominated Richard Mourdock in his place, and also nominated Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri. Both conservative nominees lost what should have been winnable Senate seats.
One conservative academic says he wants to avoid a repeat of 2010 and 2012 Senate intraparty battles.
"Republicans have to rally and realize their fate and the country's depends significantly on getting something decent on taxes and health reform," said Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, in an email to LifeZette. "The search for the perfect is the enemy of the good. That remonstrance applies to Steve Bannon and Rand Paul, as well as [moderate Republican senators] such as John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine."
Last Modified: October 23, 2017, 7:29 am