If “war” against the Republican establishment is what former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon wants, then war is what he will get.
But the task will not be easy. Strategists from both sides of the party’s divide say recent focus groups and polling have shown that the frustration within the Republican base has only grown since the 2016 election, stoked by an inability to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health-care law. President Trump, meanwhile, has continued to cast his presidency in opposition to the current ways of Washington, which could encourage primary voters to buck the system in a way that endangers House and Senate incumbents.
“Just as in 2008, the election did little to let the air out of the tires,” said Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with McConnell that plans to spend heavily on Senate primaries in support of incumbents. “The raw material of the electorate is just increasingly volatile.”
The first battle will conclude this month in Alabama, where the incumbent senator — establishment-backed Luther Strange — is fighting uphill against former state Supreme Court judge Roy Moore, a conservative evangelical jurist who has twice been removed from the bench for defying legal decisions. Known for his conviction that Christian teachings are the source of all government authority, Moore has twice been elected statewide to the Supreme Court, but he also lost two primary campaigns for governor, in 2006 and 2010. He bested Strange by a margin of 39 percent to 33 percent in the first round of Senate primary voting last month.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who came in third in the first round of primary voting, threw his support behind Moore at a rally Saturday. “It is truly amazing the audacity, the ego of the special-interest groups and the political action committees as they try to buy this United States Senate race thinking that with impunity they can run over the people of the state of Alabama,” Brooks declared.
In a sign of fights to come, the two Republican candidates are now competing to demonstrate their disgust with Washington politics. Strange, who was appointed this year to take the seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, begins one of his most recent television ads looking at the camera and announcing that he is “mad at Washington politicians.”
Moore describes his campaign as an effort to hurt McConnell, drain the swamp and bring more radical policies to the Senate, including a possible effort to impeach sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices for affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriages.
Although Trump has endorsed Strange, Bannon is backing Moore — and using the conservative website he runs, Breitbart News, to hammer the incumbent as a "swamp monster."
Allies of McConnell have been blanketing the Alabama airwaves to shrink Moore’s polling lead. After spending nearly $4 million on ads before the first primary vote in August, the Senate Leadership Fund plans to blitz the state with another $4 million before the Sept. 26 runoff. So far this year, the super PAC has raised more than $11 million, including a $1 million infusion from hedge fund manager Paul Singer last month, federal filings show.
The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have also sunk money into the race to defend Strange. The Business Council of Alabama, working with the U.S. Chamber, plans a major employee get-out-the-vote operation to support Strange by arguing that he will be better for the state’s industry and jobs. The chamber has also paid for a statewide mailer and an ad campaign that will include a spot during Saturday’s Alabama and Auburn college football games. “There is no taking it back,” Reed said. “Alabama is the big enchilada.”
The Senate Leadership Fund is also taking aim at Bannon himself in an effort to tarnish his position as a champion of the Trump political movement. Law released a statement on Tuesday calling Bannon "dead wrong" for using a recent "60 Minutes" interview to criticize Trump's decision to fire former FBI director James B. Comey.
At the Chamber, Reed echoed the criticism of Bannon for breaking with Trump. “He is turning into a rallying point for the alt-right, which is kind of bizarre because half of what he does is damage his former client and friend, whom he served as chief strategist for,” Reed said.
Bannon declined to comment. But a person familiar with his thinking described the pushback by McConnell allies as “the corrupt and incompetent political class” taking on Trump’s base.
Bannon’s allies scoffed at the notion that the McConnell-allied groups could drive a wedge between Trump’s supporters and Bannon. “At the end of the day, folks like that think the president’s base is stupid,” said a person close to the conservative media executive. “It shows the arrogance of the Republican political class in Washington.”
To counter the onslaught against Moore, the conservative advocacy group Great America Alliance, which is now overseen by Bannon protege and former deputy White House political strategist Andy Surabian, released a digital ad Tuesday featuring a montage of grainy photos of McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that argues over a rock-n-roll score that Strange was “appointed by the swamp.”
The group and its allies do not intend to match the volume of anti-Moore ads on television, but there are plans for a bus tour of the state by conservative activists in the next couple of weeks to support the Moore campaign, culminating in a major rally before the election. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has endorsed Moore, is expected to travel to Alabama to appear as part of the tour.
And Moore allies have hope that their side will see an infusion of big money, too. Great America and its sister super PAC have new links to Bannon and his political patrons, the wealthy Mercer family. The former White House strategist does not have a formal role with the organizations, but he helped install Surabian as the top strategist at the advocacy group, according to a person familiar with his role.
Ed Rollins, the veteran GOP strategist who leads Great America PAC, said he has recently “exchanged some ideas” with Bannon, for whom he said he has “great respect.” And he has also been in talks with the Mercers, influential but idiosyncratic donors who often buck the GOP party establishment.
“We are having discussions but no formal ties at this point,” Rollins said of the family. “The more we can get going in the same direction, the better. We certainly have had some conversations.”
If they decide to put serious sums into groups taking on establishment candidates, hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer and his middle daughter, Rebekah, could help fuel the GOP's latest internecine battles. Before supporting Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, they gave $13.5 million to a super PAC that backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Trump's longest-lasting challenger for the nomination.
A spokeswoman for the Mercer family did not respond to a request for comment.
But there are already indications the Mercers plan to use their money to take on GOP incumbents this cycle. In late July, Robert Mercer gave $300,000 to a super PAC allied with former Arizona state senator Kelli Ward, who is challenging Republican Sen. Jeff Flake in the state’s primary, federal filings show.
Mercer also contributed $50,000 this summer to a new super PAC, Remember Mississippi, set up by an aide to state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is considering challenging GOP incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker in the state.
Meanwhile, the pro-Trump super PAC America First and its sister advocacy group — which have emerged as the president’s officially approved outside groups — have largely stayed out of the intraparty fights. Since making a small digital ad buy for Strange in early August, before the first round of voting in the Alabama special election, the PAC has not invested any money in the contest.
Trump’s own apparent ambivalence over the Alabama race hints at the complicating factor he is likely to play in the coming fights. Although he endorsed Strange, he has not yet cut any political advertisements.
After the first round of primary elections, he tweeted congratulations to both men who made it through to the runoff, notably listing Moore's name first. "Congratulation to Roy Moore and Luther Strange," the tweet said, adding, "Exciting race!"
White House legislative director Marc Short said this week that Trump "continues to stand by" his Strange endorsement. Trump announced late Saturday on Twitter that he would visit Huntsville, Ala., on Saturday to campaign for Strange.
Republican strategists aiming to defend incumbents say they expect Trump to be an unreliable partner in the coming season. The president tends to approach questions of political loyalty on a case-by-case basis instead of as a party leader. And he is intent on keeping some distance from Republican congressional leadership, which has so far failed to deliver on his promise of Obamacare repeal.
In many ways, the coming 2018 contests will be a rematch of high-stakes primary fights that have taken place every two years since the 2008 election, when self-branded tea party challengers began trying to unseat incumbent Republicans. Flake and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who both face reelection next year, expect populist primary challenges this year. Several primary contests will be for seats with no Republican incumbent, such as those in Michigan, Montana and possibly Utah, where party insiders worry that the more anti-establishment candidates could jeopardize Republicans’ general-election hopes.
“2018 is going to be a wave election, and it is going to be an anti-incumbent wave election,” said Eagle Forum Fund President Ed Martin, who has been traveling the country to hold events to pressure moderate Republicans to support the Trump agenda. “Any Republican that is in office as an incumbent is on the line.”
After the 2010 and 2012 elections, which saw Republicans lose Senate races in Missouri, Delaware, Indiana, Colorado and Nevada with tea party candidates, both the Chamber and McConnell decided to be more aggressive in Senate primaries. Since then, the insider powers have tended to have the upper hand, winning the Senate elections they have contested in the primary. McConnell himself survived a tough tea party challenge in 2014, and a huge influx of television spending helped Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) hold off a strong primary challenge that same year.
Reed said the Chamber got involved in eight House races and one Senate contest in 2016, and won each. He expects to outperform expectations again over the coming months.
“I think it’s going to be an epic challenge, and we are seeing it in Alabama to start,” he said. “The polls look bad. We’ve got two weeks. We know what we need to do. That’s why we are in this business.”