Roy Moore’s GOP runoff win in Alabama on Tuesday has only emboldened the anti-establishment wing of the party in its belief that it can knock off other incumbent senators in next year’s midterm primaries.
“We’re going to war,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told Politico this week. “This is not a pillow fight, this is a fight fight.”
Now back at Breitbart News, the controversial Bannon is promising to wield even more power in what he says is an an effort to advance the nationalist, nativist and populist portions of President Trump’s agenda. He is vowing to boost candidates who threaten to take down establishment-leaning Republicans.
After notching a victory by backing Moore over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (and President Trump’s) favored candidate, Bannon and his allies are already looking at other candidates who could pull off upsets — and possibly scramble the 2018 Senate map. It’s quite a turn from the last round of midterm elections in 2014 when McConnell and Washington Republicans were credited with crushing the Tea Party.
“I think this certainly emboldens people on the right or the more populist elements of the party to find more challengers,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “I think had they lost in Alabama, had McConnell been able to win, it would have ripped their sails out.”
GOP strategists note that there were some unique circumstances that made Luther Strange especially vulnerable. Strange was appointed to the U.S. Senate by a scandal-plagued governor he was supposed to be investigating and was never fully able to shake the stain of a possible quid pro quo. Strange, a former lobbyist, was never able to fire up the Trump-ian base.
The next incumbent targets that Bannon and company are setting their sights on are Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, another would-be Bannon target, announced this week he would not seek re-election. They were already on the hot seat in 2018 before Tuesday, but now challengers will be easier to recruit and money could flow.
“We’ve had multiple wake-up calls. Everyone should be wide awake by now,” said Doug Heye, a former top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who shockingly lost in his own primary in 2014. “No one can afford to take anything for granted at this point, and that now includes primaries.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned superPAC that poured $9 million into the race to help Strange to no avail, wrote in a memo to supporters, obtained by the New York Times, that while the backlash they faced was driven by an anger toward Washington interests, Bannon shouldn’t be given complete credit for Moore’s victory. The controversial former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice has had a decades-long political career in the state, had a built-in base and was ahead even before Bannon stepped in. Bannon used Breitbart to boost Moore’s candidacy and brought in other conservative stars, like Brexit leader Nigel Farage and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, to campaign for Moore.
“[C]andidates who are worried about Bannon’s role (or counting on his support) in future races,” Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law wrote in the memo, “should note that nearly all of Bannon’s engagement in Alabama was for the cameras and for promoting his own brand — all at the very end — not the kind of sustained political engagement that moves voters in the long slog of regular elections.”
It’s true Bannon didn’t pour in a lot of financial resources to support Moore, but going forward he may have a deep-pocketed backer who could invest heavily in his chosen candidates. The Times reported Friday that billionaire hedge-fund moguls Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah may be teaming up with Bannon to fund his efforts.
Alabama gave Bannon and his allies a shot of adrenaline. And now they’re going to be tested on whether they can recruit top-tier candidates with functional campaigns — and not simply be gadflies.
Here’s a rundown of the places where Bannon and other conservative outside groups could seek to play — and possibly cause chaos:
Sen. Jeff Flake is by far the most endangered incumbent on this list, and he certainly hasn’t done a lot to help his own case. The Arizonan even wrote a book this year that excoriated the president and the populist agenda that propelled Trump to victory in 2016.
Flake was on shaky ground with Trump even before he published his tome, but comments like ones accusing GOP leaders of making a “Faustian bargain” with Trump and abandoning their conservative principles, didn’t mend fences with the now-president (though Flake’s consistently voted with Trump on most issues).
As a result, Trump has tweeted supportive things about state Sen. Kelli Ward, Flake’s only announced primary challenger as of now. Backing the wrong horse in Alabama — especially for a president who doesn’t like being on the losing side of anything — could cause him to reconsider.
Ward lost in the 2016 cycle to Sen. John McCain in the GOP primary, and Republicans in D.C. are very worried that if she wins the nomination Flake’s seat would be out of reach for them in November, especially now that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has officially announced her candidacy. Nonetheless, an August poll showed Flake running badly behind Ward, and Republicans privately admit that Flake’s numbers are worrisome.
In the wake of Tuesday’s win by Moore, Ward was quick to draw a parallel to her own underdog bid.
“Voters in Arizona feel an equal level of frustration with Sen. Jeff Flake, who has been one of the most vocal critics of President Trump,” Ward said in a statement. “The Senate leadership should take note of what has transpired in Alabama and end their dishonest attacks against me. Our campaign has built incredible momentum and broad support across the state, and I am confident that any false personal attacks by forces in DC will be rejected by the citizens of Arizona – just as they were rejected by voters in Alabama tonight.”
The Mercers have already put money into a superPAC for Ward. But she may not be the only challenger who signs on to try to topple Flake. The Arizona Republic reported that Trump met privately with both state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham when he visited the state last month. However, Arizona doesn’t have a runoff, and if the anti-Flake vote is split, the senator could end up eking out a win.
Sen. Dean Heller tried to do damage control with the conservative base after initially coming out against the GOP’s first plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But Heller eventually acquiesced and has supported subsequent efforts to repeal Obamacare, despite those failing or not coming up for a vote.
A pro-Trump group ran ads against him. If that kind of effort continues, it could be particularly damaging given that Heller is the only Republican up for re-election this cycle in a state that Hillary Clinton carried last November.
His waffling helped spur a primary challenge from repeated (and failed) candidate Danny Tarkanian. He’s the son of legendary University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who’s well-known in the state. But he’s lost winnable races before as the GOP nominee, including a House race last year, and D.C. operatives aren’t optimistic that he can win a statewide general election if he’s the nominee.
An August poll also showed Heller trailing Tarkanian, with over half of primary voters saying they wanted to elect someone else than the incumbent senator. Tarkanian has highlighted Heller’s decision not to endorse Trump last year, and he told McClatchy he believes that cost the president a victory in Nevada. Tarkanian tweeted congratulations to Moore after the win in Alabama and boasted his race was next.
If anyone took Moore’s victory in Alabama as a sign to jump in, it appears to have been neighboring state Sen. Chris McDaniel. In 2014 he came close to knocking off Sen. Thad Cochran in the primary, forcing him into a brutal runoff that was exacerbated after supporters of McDaniel broke into Cochran’s wife’s nursing home room to take photos.
McDaniel was in Alabama to witness Moore’s win Tuesday, and he’s been in touch with Bannon about running against former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker.
“A definite decision has not been made,” McDaniel told a local TV station. “But [what] we do know is that we’re preparing for anything at this stage. And we have a lot of good friends out there in Mississippi and our base from 2014. They still feel like that race was stolen from us.”
But Wicker is no Cochran, who was caught flat-footed without having run a competitive race in years. And while yes, he’s been a part of GOP leadership, Republicans point to the fact that he was instrumental in helping protect the Republican Senate majority in the 2016 cycle — which then led to confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Bannon and company got an early victory Tuesday before the Alabama polls closed when GOP Sen. Bob Corker announced he was retiring. Bannon had already threatened to recruit primary challengers against Corker after he called out the president.
Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who Trump considered for secretary of state, was seen as a pragmatic lawmaker, and news of his retirement drew bipartisan dismay.
Now, Republicans fear a more conservative, Bannon-backed challenger could emerge. State Sen. Mark Green, who withdrew from consideration as Trump’s nominee to be Army secretary after comments he made that were seen as insensitive toward Muslims and discriminatory toward LGBT people, has signaled that he might run.
And many other candidates are also eyeing bids, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a vocal Trump supporter. Tennessee also doesn’t have a primary runoff, so often a candidate with just a plurality of the vote — often stemming from vote-rich East Tennessee — typically emerges, and conservative hopefuls frequently split the vote.
Other GOP primaries to watch
It’s not just in taking on incumbents where Bannon and his allies could give D.C. Republicans heartburn. With an incredibly favorable map featuring 10 Democratic incumbents in states Trump carried in 2016, if weak nominees come out of the primaries, those once winnable races could evaporate from the lists of possibilities. Just look back at nominees like Todd Akin of Missouri in 2014 and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010 who all lost what many thought were winnable races.
Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow told The Hill in an interview that Bannon is also looking at possible primary challengers to Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, as well as meeting with GOP challengers in critical target races like Wisconsin against Sen. Tammy Baldwin and in Montana against Sen. Jon Tester, both of whom are Democrats. But all those primary races could take some more time to fully take shape.