The Steve Bannon primary is on—and it’s playing out at every level of government.
Top Senate recruits are wooing him by phone, and candidates for state legislature are cornering him at political rallies. Primary rivals are openly jockeying for the support of his network, and insurgent Republican hopefuls text him, dine with him and traipse to his Washington townhouse in the hopes of securing his blessing.
“Steve is one of Washington’s Pied Pipers of the conservative movement,” said Brett Doster, media consultant for Roy Moore, the GOP candidate who won a hotly contested Alabama Senate primary runoff, aided in part by Bannon.
With Moore’s victory late last month, Bannon, the ex-White House chief strategist and current leader of the hard-right outlet Breitbart, is suddenly at the center of GOP races across the board, heavily involved in boosting a slate of Senate challengers as candidates up and down the ballot try to land his support.
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“I plan to reach out to him to see if there’s an interest, to see if they’re willing to come on board to help us,” said Alabama state Rep. Barry Moore, who is primarying Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., in part over her past criticism of President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. “It would be a good shot in the arm. It would be good for us to have him involved if at all possible.”
Bannon and his allies have been in touch with current and potential candidates or their representatives involved in most of the marquee Senate primary races next year, from the already-heated Arizona and Nevada races, to the contests intensifying in places like West Virginia and Wisconsin.
It’s not just the Senate—Bannon is backing Michael Grimm, the ex-GOP congressman who was jailed for felony tax fraud and is now seeking his old Staten Island House seat again. Bannon recently spent time with a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate, Scott Wagner, who appeared with him at a conservative gathering in St. Louis and talked up spending “two hours on the plane with Steve Bannon. I was pretty emboldened before, but I can tell you right now I'm like 500 percent more emboldened.”
And in a sign of just how far-reaching Bannon’s influence is perceived to be among conservative candidates, multiple House—and even statehouse—hopefuls are also seeking to wrangle Bannon’s support, looking for introductions and tracking him down at events.
“The same establishment that he is fighting in Washington, D.C. is the same establishment we’re fighting against in Tallahassee,” said former Florida state Rep. Mike Hill, a Trump backer who is running again in 2018 and displays a picture of himself with Bannon on his campaign website.
Hill was spotted outside a rally for Roy Moore here in rural Alabama the night before the runoff’s Election Day, huddling with his campaign manager, who was exuberant after mentioning Hill’s race to Bannon.
“We have a kindred spirit there,” Hill said. “He understands that. He says, ‘Great, keep up with your campaign.’”
The idea of treating Bannon like a conservative kingmaker is deeply alarming to many veteran Republicans who say his hard-edged nationalist brand is out of step with traditional GOP values and a turnoff to swing voters.
“A civil war led by the Steve Bannons of the world is destructive not only internally, but…independents are generally not in favor of nationalist movements and extreme politics,” said Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Now we have Steve Bannon trying to put together primaries against incumbents, well-respected within the ranks of the Senate.”
Plenty of top Republicans also sharply question Bannon’s influence, noting that many of the candidates who have engaged with him have also been in talks with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other party officials for months, from Josh Mandel in Ohio to Josh Hawley in Missouri. They also stress that Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama had much more to do with local dynamics—from Moore’s reputation as a religious crusader to his opponent’s ties to a disgraced ex-governor—than with Bannon.
People involved in Bannon’s discussions with candidates stress that in many races, final decisions on how to proceed have not been made—but they note that he is hearing from a relatively broad range of candidates, from those perceived as bomb-throwers to some embraced by the GOP establishment.
The latter is the case in Missouri, where Hawley—a top GOP Senate recruit who is challenging Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill—spoke with Bannon by phone following the Alabama runoff, as McClatchy and the Kansas City Star first reported.
The phone call was aimed at showing Bannon that “Josh is a good conservative,” a Republican close to Hawley told the Star. Hawley has also recently enjoyed positive coverage in Breitbart.
In other current and potential primary contests, from West Virginia to Mississippi, candidates are already competing over who most staunchly supports Trump—and claiming support from Bannon is factoring heavily into the messaging.
“Steve Bannon knows that Washington D.C. is broken and that the Senate needs a strong conservative leader who has a record of getting things done,” read a statement to McClatchy from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose Senate campaign recently issued a press release highlighting Bannon’s words of praise for him. He added, “I'm grateful for Steve's support and look forward to working with him to help drain the swamp in D.C."
In Mississippi, there is Chris McDaniel, the state senator who lost a controversial primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, but is considering a challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker next cycle. McDaniel also was with Bannon at Moore’s Alabama rally.
Asked by McClatchy if he would like Bannon to be as involved in his potential Senate campaign as he was in Moore’s, McDaniel replied, “If I run, I would certainly hope so.”
“He obviously was a large part of the reason Trump was successful in his presidential bid,” McDaniel said of Bannon. “Steve has been supportive. He’s indicated he’ll support me whichever decision I’ve made, whether it’s U.S. Senate or some other position in the state.”
Certainly, some GOP strategists note, in the last several campaign cycles more establishment-minded Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have generally been effective in defeating upstart, hard-right primary challenges—including McDaniel—even when they have received support from the Breitbart wing of the party.
Yet despite the local issues that complicated the Alabama primary dynamics last month, some operatives watching races going forward are worried about what Moore’s victory, boosted to some degree by Bannon, portends for other GOP primaries.
Moore’s win opens “the floodgates, and people who have been on the fence about jumping in point to that, see a path, and try to recreate that magic in their own states,” said one GOP strategist with campaign experience in the South, who will be involved in the midterms. “They will probably be overlearning a lesson. I think there are things unique to…Alabama. But I think it’s huge encouragement to candidates like that.”
Cardenas, the ex-American Conservative Union chairman, said he hopes that the party infrastructure is sufficiently preparing to defend incumbents—but expressed deep skepticism, and worry.
“The party is fearful of losing and it’s trying to do the impossible: keep under our tent the Bannons and the Corkers of this world,” he said, referencing Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who is retiring and has recently emerged as a sharp Trump critic.
“I don’t believe that formula will succeed,” Cardenas said.
Lindsay Wise of the McClatchy D.C. bureau and Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star contributed to this report.