For weeks, Breitbart.com openly campaigned for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. It also touted the kingmaking powers of its chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist.
On Tuesday, Moore, Bannon and Breitbart all went down to defeat.
The election of Democrat Doug Jones was a stunning rejection of Bannon and the right-wing news-and-commentary website that pushed Moore’s candidacy despite questions about his moral character — he is accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls while in his 30s — let alone his ability to win an election long assumed to be a slam dunk for any conventional Republican candidate.
The Alabama results suggest that a reckoning is due for both Bannon and Breitbart, whose influence and audience grew exponentially during Trump’s presidential campaign. Since then, as support for Trump has declined, so has Breitbart’s traffic, settling back to the 15 million people a month it drew before a spike around the election last year.
“It’s obvious that they’re not gaining ground,” said Frank Durham, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa who studies conservative media. While drawing broader lessons from a single-state race such as Alabama is problematic, Durham said, “Bannon’s showboating wasn’t persuasive to people who aren’t already in his camp.”
Bannon and Breitbart worked in tandem to promote Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge who was twice removed from office for disobeying federal court orders. When The Washington Post published credible allegations of child sexual abuse against Moore, for example, Breitbart tried to nitpick the newspaper’s reporting and discredit Moore’s accusers.
At Bannon’s direction, Breitbart sent two reporters to Alabama in search of cover for Moore. One of them, Aaron Klein, reported that the mother of one of the accusers said her daughter didn’t have a phone installed in her bedroom when Moore, then in his 30s, called the 14-year-old girl to arrange an encounter.
This sleuthing suggested a fatal flaw in the woman’s memory of where Moore had contacted her. Except it overlooked a key detail: The woman and her mother both said their home phone was equipped with an extension cord that made it possible to receive a call in the bedroom.
Breitbart frequently made Bannon the subject of laudatory news accounts during the race. The website portrayed him as the leader of the Republican Party’s insurgent wing. “Bannon gathers donors as he launches war on GOP establishment,” read one headline in mid-October. Another, from mid-November: “Revealed: The 6 books that Steve Bannon says influenced his worldview.”
But Bannon’s war effort seemed to stall on Tuesday.
“Steve Bannon lost an unloseable race,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor and frequent Bannon critic. “He thought [Moore] was the best pick of his life. His ego is so wild and his incompetence so large that he brought about the Kama Sutra of political debauchery. Every wrong move in the book was on full display here.”
Bannon stuck with Moore even when a more prudent strategist would have assessed the candidate as fatally wounded and urged a replacement like Jeff Sessions, who gave up the seat in January to become Trump’s attorney general, Shapiro said.
Instead, he said, Bannon doubled down, persuading Trump to throw his support behind Moore, which reluctantly drew the Republican National Committee back into supporting him. Shapiro, excoriating his old boss, said Bannon “grabs onto power with both hands, and he doesn’t let go. But he has so little to show for it and has earned so little of it himself.”
Breitbart editors and spokesmen did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Wednesday.
To be sure, Breitbart and Bannon’s influence seems most pronounced during primary races — when the most motivated and ideological voters turn out — and less so during general elections. The site, which drew 14.97 million unique visitors in October, according to ComScore, appeals most strongly to white conservatives who favor stringent anti-immigration policies, economic “nationalism” and a powerful military.
But as its support of Moore showed, it has a mixed record of picking winners. In 2014, the website threw its editorial support behind tea party candidate Chris McDaniel in the Republican Senate primary in Mississippi; McDaniel lost narrowly to the incumbent, Thad Cochran. Conversely, that same year, it supported insurgent candidate Dave Brat’s bid to unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.); Brat won the GOP primary in a stunning upset.
Even Breitbart and Bannon’s greatest triumph — Trump’s electoral victory last year — was late in arriving. The site gave more or less equal time in Republican primary to Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), reflecting a split between Bannon’s loyalty to Trump and the tilt toward Cruz by Robert Mercer, the conservative hedge-fund billionaire who had been Breitbart’s principal financier. (Mercer said last month that he would pass his stake in the company to his daughter Rebekah.)
On Wednesday, a day after Jones declared victory, Breitbart seemed neither bloodied nor bowed. “Patience!” one columnist counseled: Making America great again “will take decades.” Another article, “Five things that went wrong for Roy Moore” cited a disunited party, strong support for Jones among urban voters, and higher-than-expected turnout.
There was no mention of the molestation allegations against Moore — and nothing about Bannon’s role in his campaign.