With his continued support of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon is in danger of getting bogged down in the first major battle of his “season of war” on the Republican establishment and faces mounting questions about his ability to marshal the resources needed to prosecute his campaign.
Bannon, the pugilistic nationalist who continues to have President Trump’s ear, has vowed to recruit and field challengers against almost every GOP Senate incumbent next year with the aim of creating widespread upheaval and dislodging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
But a growing number of Republicans say Bannon’s continued embrace of Moore — who defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in September’s Republican primary before facing a spate of allegations this month about unwanted sexual and romantic overtures to teenagers — could undercut his ambitions to play kingmaker in 2018.
“This race really signifies whether Bannon has the juice,” said a veteran Republican consultant with close ties to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly. “He’s used it to beat his chest and threaten other Senate Republicans across the country. . . . When you’re building a political movement, you have to have early victories. You’ve got to show you can win.”
Recent polling has suggested the Democratic candidate in the race, lawyer Doug Jones, now has a real shot at winning, a prospect that was unthinkable in Alabama just months ago. But even if Moore prevails, Bannon critics argue his association with Moore — who could face expulsion from the Senate — will tarnish his efforts to field other candidates.
“It introduces a different variable for the candidates he supports,” said Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart News, the ultraconservative website run by Bannon. “They’re going to be asked how they feel about being supported by someone who stood by a sexual predator. All of that baggage now follows Bannon politically.”
Bannon associates acknowledge the accusations against Moore have put Bannon in a tough spot, but some argue he will not be held accountable for alleged behavior by Moore that did not come to light over the course of a long and controversial career, which included removal twice as Alabama’s chief justice.
“It would be a massive mistake to draw too many conclusions from the outcome of this race,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a longtime Bannon friend. “If Judge Moore stays in the race and loses, the lesson is vetting candidates is awfully important. Beyond that, it’s a big mistake to overly interpret this one skirmish.”
A political operative close to Bannon said Bannon continues to support Moore because he believes Moore’s denials about the most serious charges leveled by the women who have come forward.
The operative, who was not authorized to speak for Bannon, said other potential Senate candidates across the country have continued to reach out, seeking Bannon’s support, and said some Bannon-backed candidates are already announced. And the operative said Bannon is continuing to court funders for his efforts, which will accelerate in coming months.
“He’s got people banging down his door to talk with him,” said one Bannon associate, who was not authorized to speak for Bannon and requested anonymity.
Even before the first stories broke in The Washington Post about Moore’s alleged unwanted advances, however, there were questions about Bannon’s ability to pull together enough resources to maintain a broad campaign against GOP incumbents.
The Mercer family, a major financial patron of Breitbart and an array of other Bannon projects, does not appear to be fully on board.
Early this month, GOP mega-donor Robert Mercer announced that he was stepping down as co-chief executive of his hedge fund and selling his stake in Breitbart to his daughters.
In doing so, he wrote a letter distancing himself from Bannon in which he expressed concern that he at times had been mischaracterized in the press as “a white supremacist or a member of some other noxious group” and made clear that he would be making his own decisions about candidates to support financially.
A person familiar with Mercer’s thinking said in the past week that he does not plan to be “joined at the hip” with Bannon in his Senate efforts. In some cases, there could be overlap, but in other cases they could part ways, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about private conversations.
Less clear are the intentions of Mercer’s middle daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who has largely directed where her family steers its political resources in recent years. Most of that money, however, has come from her father. Neither of the Mercers speak to the news media.
In other cases, Bannon appears to have been rebuffed by major donors. Last week, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson said through a spokesman that he would not be supporting Bannon’s efforts to remake the Senate and was instead “supporting Mitch McConnell 100 percent.” Bannon had met with Adelson in Washington about a month earlier, though an associate insisted Saturday that he had “never asked him for anything.”
Adelson’s statement came a day after Bannon praised him during a Zionist Organization of America dinner in New York, saying Trump’s victory “wouldn’t have come” without the help of Adelson, a major donor to the organization.
One longtime Bannon associate said the real question is whether Bannon will be able to attract significant funding beyond the Mercers.
“He’s scaring a lot of people with these tactics, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest he’s going to have the financial backing he needs,” said the associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell who has been highly critical of Bannon, was even more blunt.
“I don’t know a single major donor who’s interested in funding this,” Holmes said, referring to Bannon’s efforts as a “vanity project.”
Bannon associates pointed to his frequent travel and reported trips on private jets to bolster the notion that he is attracting donors.
Holmes argued that Bannon’s work in Alabama could prove to be a major disservice to Trump, particularly if Democrats win the Senate seat, further narrowing Republicans’ majority in a chamber that already has struggled to coalesce around the president’s legislative agenda.
“It’s thrown all of Donald Trump’s agenda into flux, for a race in a state that should be a put-away for Republicans,” Holmes said. “Right now, it’s not about winning, it’s not about accomplishing the president’s agenda. It’s about Steve Bannon.”
Chris Pack, communications director for the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-connected super PAC that backed Strange in the primary, also argued that Bannon’s efforts are having a more corrosive effect on the Republican Party.
After the initial Moore story broke, he said, Bannon associates were on cable TV talking about the age of consent in Alabama when party leaders should have been spending their time touting plans for tax reform.
Bannon’s instincts were shown to be off base when he suggested in a New York Times interview this month that Republican Ed Gillespie had closed the gap in the Virginia governor’s race by “rallying around the Trump agenda.”
“I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward,” Bannon told the Times. “If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.”
Ralph Northam, the Democrat, won the race comfortably.
Bannon’s “war” on the GOP establishment appeared to be off to a promising start in September after Moore’s grass-roots-fueled campaign prevailed against Strange, who was backed not only by McConnell but also Trump in the special election to fill the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney general.
“The Roy Moore victory in the primary showed Bannon could do something that wasn’t on Donald Trump’s coattails,” Bardella said. “That was so important to him.”
Bannon has also claimed two other Republican “scalps” this year with the announced retirements of Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, two races he had said he was targeting.
Associates say Bannon is continuing to insert himself into an array of Senate races, in states including Mississippi, Utah and Wyoming.
Not all of his targets involve sitting GOP senators. In Wisconsin, Bannon has blessed the candidacy of Kevin Nicholson, a Marine Corps combat veteran, who is trying to unseat Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
When a pro-Trump PAC aligned with Bannon announced its support for Nicholson last month, the candidate took to Twitter and wrote: “ ‘The Steve Bannon primary in Wisconsin is over and Kevin Nicholson has won.’ Humbled by this huge endorsement.”
Even some Bannon allies questioned whether his ambitions are too broad.
One Bannon friend said he told him that he would be better off picking a few races where he could post early wins rather than announcing he was taking on the entire Republican establishment at once.
Moore “would not be the horse you would want to bet on first,” added the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly.
Others said it was too early to tell whether Bannon’s efforts would jell and said he’s not following a traditional playbook.
“He doesn’t have a button-down political organization around him,” Schlapp said. “He himself would not say he’s some Svengali of organization. He’s a man of ideas.”
While Schlapp said he believes Bannon’s efforts could survive a Moore loss in Alabama, others Republicans took a contrary view.
“The smell of Alabama, he’s just not going to be able to escape it,” said a GOP consultant with close ties to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely. “Pretty soon, it’s just a confused delusional guy at his desk.”