There were two other people mentioned alongside Flake by that aide, Luther Strange and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Strange was the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment in the Alabama race to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. Corker, like Flake, recently announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection to the Senate in the face of his party’s embrace of Trumpism.
But neither of those cases is really like Flake’s. Strange was trailing the eventual Republican primary winner, Roy Moore, even before Bannon weighed in on Moore’s behalf. Corker was also up for reelection next year, but decided against running. Unlike Flake, it’s not clear that he faced a significant primary challenge (as Nate Silver noted on Wednesday morning). Claiming credit for Corker’s retirement is like a boxer dropping dead of a heart attack in the ring and his opponent claiming he scored a KO.
Nor does Bannon necessarily deserve the credit for Flake’s decision. Flake was trailing in Republican primary polling behind Kelli Ward, a state senator in Arizona who had Bannon’s support in that race. But Bannon endorsed her only about a week ago, nearly a year after Ward announced her intention to run. Even Trump backed Ward publicly before Bannon did, tweeting his support for her in mid-August. We’ll come back to this.
More broadly, Bannon’s track record in electoral politics is thin bordering on nonexistent. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar made this point earlier this month. Bannon went to work on the Trump campaign in August 2016, and Trump, as you likely know, won. But for those claiming to be able to determine the outcomes of elections there’s a caveat to Trump’s victory: He lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. He won the Electoral College anyway, of course, but if you’re a guy who claims to be able to deliver victories on demand, losing your highest-profile race by 2 percentage points isn’t a great record to cheer.
There’s not much more to the record than that. Breitbart has tried repeatedly to influence the outcomes of elections, including by working against House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) during last year’s Republican primary. (Ryan won by nearly 70 points.) Breitbart weighed in heavily on behalf of Chris McDaniel’s GOP primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi in 2014, but after McDaniel won the primary with a plurality of the vote, he lost a run-off.
What Bannon has not done is show that he knows how to get people elected to office. What he has done is leverage a particular sentiment in the Republican Party to market himself — and that sentiment — as unstoppable forces in American politics. That sentiment can be called Trumpism, but that term actually undersells Bannon’s role. Trump’s political views were clearly shaped and informed by Breitbart; Trump is the clearest and most successful manifestation of that sentiment that Bannon cultivated at his website.
It’s why when Kelli Ward announced her bid for the Senate last year, she gave the story to Breitbart exclusively at the outset, to claim the mantle of that sentiment from the people who publicized it to the world.
On Tuesday, as he announced his intention to leave the Senate, Flake said that he thought “this fever will break” — this anti-establishment, Trumpist fever that led Flake to determine that he couldn’t win next year. (It’s a mutation of the fever that President Barack Obama lamented in 2012.) What will likely break it, though, isn’t Republican voters rising up and declaring that they’ve had it with Trump and Trumpism. More likely to break the fever would be a string of losses by Bannon-backed Trumpist candidates, showing Republicans on Capitol Hill that Bannon’s threats are empty.
Bannon has gotten lucky before. But for now, he has proven much more adept at slapping ideological certificates of authenticity on candidates than on getting them elected to office.