Stephen K. Bannon decided to go there on Tuesday night, attacking Mitt Romney for serving as a Mormon missionary rather than in the Vietnam War. “You hid behind your religion," Bannon said while stumping for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, whom Romney has criticized. “You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam. Do not talk to me about honor and integrity."
Bannon is essentially other-izing Romney and making him sound like a coward in comparison with Moore, a Vietnam veteran and the GOP Senate nominee in Alabama. The fact that Romney is a Mormon — a religion of which many Americans were skeptical during Romney's rise to become the 2012 GOP presidential nominee — drives a wedge between Alabama's evangelical Republican voters and Romney.
But whatever the short-term strategic benefits might be for Moore, Bannon's move is a curious one when it comes to his 2018 aspirations and President Trump's interests.
One of the first critics of Bannon's comments to speak out Wednesday was Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), whom Trump has publicly urged and Bannon reportedly wants to seek reelection as a means of preventing Romney from replacing him in the Senate. Romney has said that he'll run if Hatch retires as expected, and he'd win the seat with ease.
Hatch hit back hard at Bannon on Wednesday, offering to give him a lesson on the Book of Mormon and saying he “resent[s] anyone attacking any persons [sic] religious views, but particularly our own Christian LDS faith and the selfless service of missionary work." (Bannon also attacked Romney's five sons in 2012 for doing mission trips rather than serving in the military.)
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) December 6, 2017
Bannon's comments would seem not terribly helpful for Trump and his 2020 campaign. Trump struggled mightily with Mormon voters in 2016, and for a time it seemed as though he might even lose Utah because of the presence of a Mormon Utahn third-party candidate, Evan McMullin.
Trump wound up winning the state rather easily, albeit by a much smaller margin (18 points) than Romney (48 points) or previous GOP presidential nominees, including Sen. John McCain (28 points). But there is another state in which Mormons figure heavily that could be on the map for Trump 2020: Arizona. Despite Trump winning last year in blue-leaning swing states across the Rust Belt, his 3.5-point margin in Arizona was a clear step back for Republicans. And Mormons, who make up 6 percent of voters in Arizona and are among the most politically active religious groups in the United States, were thought to be part of the reason for his struggles there.
And even apart from 2020 concerns, Romney is someone Trump may soon have to work with if Romney becomes a senator. In addition, Bannon's comments risk raising Trump's Vietnam deferments, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to raise recently (although he later denied that he was talking specifically about Trump).
The White House appeared eager to distance itself from Bannon's comments Wednesday morning. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, emphasized on CNN that “the president and Governor Romney spoke, I don't know, 10 hours ago — less than 12 hours ago — and people should know that because otherwise there's speculation." She added that the two have a “great relationship."
All of this assumes, of course, that Bannon is acting strategically and that he truly has Trump's interests at heart. Increasingly, it seems as though Bannon's larger interest is in burning down the Republican Party and punishing Trump's critics. And to that end, going after Mormons fits a clear pattern.