Even after Republicans suffered their shocking loss in deep-red Alabama after rallying behind a Trumpist candidate championed by Stephen K. Bannon, all indications are that the president has no intention of cutting Bannon — or Bannonism — loose.
Today in his speech to the FBI, President Trump veered into a denunciation of the lottery program that gives visas to people from areas with low immigration rates to the United States, a longtime target of the right, claiming it allows other countries to give us their “worst people.”
This was yet another indication that Trump will continue to hew to the hard-line, ethno-nationalist, anti-immigrant message favored by Bannon. Indeed, Trump is reportedly not going to stop taking Bannon’s advice, even though his own advisers had hoped Roy Moore’s humiliating loss would get him to rethink his reliance on his former chief strategist.
Coming after the Alabama debacle, this could end up doing more damage to the GOP in a hidden way that may become more apparent over time. Here’s why: Now that Republicans hold only a 51-49 seat Senate majority, Democrats need to flip only two seats in 2018 to win control. The two GOP-held Senate seats that Democrats have the best chance at winning are in Nevada (Dean Heller) and Arizona (the retiring Jeff Flake).
And both of those states have lots of Latino voters in them.
“The Republicans’ most vulnerable seats are in two states with heavy Hispanic populations that, by and large, oppose Trump’s agenda across the board,” Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me, adding that a continued reliance by Trump on Bannonism might help Democrats overcome their previous “trouble turning out their votes in midterms.”
Make no mistake: It will still be very hard for Democrats to win the majority. They are defending far more seats than Republicans are, and would have to hold all of them while picking off two (and Nevada and Arizona are the most likely, with Tennessee being an outside possibility). But, now that Democrats have won a seat in Alabama, there is at least a plausible path to a Democratic majority that was not there before the Alabama results came in.
Republicans have reacted to the Alabama loss in a strikingly self-destructive fashion. As Josh Kraushaar reports, it is intensifying the civil war between the faction of the party led by Mitch McConnell and the one led by Bannon, who has vowed to field a slate of primary challengers in hopes of ousting McConnell as majority leader. One source close to Bannon told Joshua Green that this GOP civil war will now get “even more vicious.”
To that end, Bannon is backing two thoroughly Trumpist primary candidates in Nevada and in Arizona: Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Heller, and Kelli Ward, who is vying for the seat of the retiring Flake. McConnell advisers have leaked word that they view both as terrible general election candidates.
But it gets worse. If Trump continues down the Bannonite path, by bashing immigrants and continuing to demand funding for a border wall — or even punting on a solution for the “dreamers” — then Republicans could be at greater risk of losing those seats even if neither Bannonite ends up being the general election candidate. That’s because Trump’s continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric could still drive up Latino turnout.
Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada journalist and editor of the Nevada Independent, told me that “the Latino vote is going to be potentially determinative” in the Nevada race, even if Heller survives his primary challenge, particularly in an environment of overheated Trumpism. “The Hispanic vote is going to be up for a midterm anyhow, because of all the rhetoric coming from the president,” Ralston said, adding that it could climb as high as one-fifth of the electorate.
Ralston drew a parallel to the hard-fought 2010 Nevada Senate race, in which Harry Reid miraculously survived in a terrible year for Democrats against whack-job Republican challenger Sharron Angle, who was in some ways a precursor of Moore. “Angle did all kinds of Bannon-like things, portraying Latinos as being in gangs,” Ralston said. “It drove up the Hispanic vote so high that it helped save Reid.”
Meanwhile, it hardly seems like a coincidence that before announcing his retirement, Flake pushed for a compromise solution for the dreamers, and more recently has demanded that Trump pursue a fix in exchange for his vote for tax reform.
Nor is it a coincidence that Flake and his fellow Arizona senator, John McCain, have both been leading critics of the president’s populist ethno-nationalism. Indeed, the larger story here may be that a critical battleground in the war for the Senate may be a region where immigration and border politics are hottest — and where Trump’s approach to it is increasingly a problem for Republicans. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg emails me:
“Control of the Senate now falls to a region of the country that has aggressively rejected Trumpism – the border region and those states with large Mexican-American populations. Trump’s repeated bashing of immigrants, Mexico, and NAFTA just isn’t playing well in this part of the country, and it poses a real problem for McConnell and his colleagues.”
There is a long way to go until Election Day 2018, and all sorts of other factors will influence the outcome. But if Trump continues to listen to Bannon, it likely won’t make it any easier for Republicans when that day finally comes.
Update: I should have noted that Democrats are likely to have very credible Senate candidates in both Nevada (Rep. Jackie Rosen) and in Arizona (Rep. Kyrsten Sinema).