Nation & World

Conservatives aren’t done with Bannon yet

Steve Bannon speaks in support of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore during a campaign rally, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Midland City, Ala. On Wednesday, Trump renounced him.
Steve Bannon speaks in support of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore during a campaign rally, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Midland City, Ala. On Wednesday, Trump renounced him. AP

President Donald Trump on Wednesday repudiated his former chief strategist, saying Steve Bannon was never as influential as he claimed to be—but the far-right candidates who have long clamored for Bannon’s support aren’t willing to disavow him so quickly.

In an explosive statement, the president suggested that Bannon had “lost his mind” and was a source of leaks in his White House—comments that came after excerpts of a forthcoming book landed, quoting Bannon making stunningly critical comments about the Trump family and the investigation into the campaign’s connections to Russia.

The new rift between Trump and Bannon creates an awkward and uncomfortable dynamic for GOP candidates who have courted Bannon for months, seeing his nod as the ultimate in pro-Trump credentials—a reputation that Trump shredded on Wednesday.

But in the hours after Trump issued his statement, there was little appetite for a total break with Bannon, now the head of the hard-right outlet Breitbart. Certainly some GOP candidates criticized the reported comments or downplayed the significance of their previously coveted Bannon endorsements.

Others, however, chose to rally behind Bannon instead.

The former White House chief strategist has been causing a stir since his departure from the Trump administration. Steve Bannon has declared war on the Republican establishment and he doesn’t plan to stop until the 2018 midterm election.

“If Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the president’s back, I welcome his support,” read a statement from Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging GOP Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, a marquee Senate race.

All fall, a host of deeply anti-establishment candidates—as well as some more mainstream contenders—were in touch with Bannon and his allies. They traipsed to his Capitol Hill headquarters for meetings, stayed in touch over text and sought out his blessing, to the frustration of many Republican operatives and leaders who see Bannon as a deeply destructive force.

McClatchy asked a half-dozen previously Bannon-admiring Republican campaigns (and one potential candidate) on Wednesday whether they would now reject Bannon, in light of Trump’s comments. None said outright that they would.

Trump “is the leader we have long desired and the one who will turn our country around,” emailed Alabama state Rep. Barry Moore, who is challenging Rep. Martha Roby in an Alabama House district. “And, at the same time, Steve Bannon is, has been, and will be a key voice in articulating the frustrations conservatives have been feeling for years. Any potential strain on that relationship is just that- a strain between two men with strong personalities, ideas, and vision for our country."

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has been in close contact with Bannon in the past and is weighing a Senate bid, didn’t comment on Bannon’s reported remarks, or answer directly whether he would still want Bannon’s support. Instead, he blamed a familiar bogeyman for the situation: “The establishment.”

"The establishment's swamp monsters in Washington would like nothing more than to refill the swamp,” he said. “Conservatives need to work together, not tear each other apart. If we are divided, they win."

Other candidates elsewhere in the county offered sharper rebukes. Former Rep. Michael Grimm, who was jailed for felony tax fraud and is now seeking his old Staten Island House seat again, has landed Bannon’s endorsement. But in a statement Wednesday night, he said: “I strongly denounce the comments by Steve Bannon as quoted by Michael Wolff. They are baseless attacks against the President's family, beyond disturbing, and I fully support our Commander in Chief.”

And in West Virginia, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s campaign for Senate had loudly and aggressively touted his Bannon endorsement. But on Wednesday, his spokeswoman, Nachama Soloveichik, said he “does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family.”

By Wednesday afternoon, from West Virginia to Wisconsin to Nevada, the dispute over the Trump-Bannon brawl was already becoming the next fault line in contested Republican primaries.

“Even now, in his response, he is refusing to criticize Bannon for the comments or disavow him,” said Andy Seré, a spokesman for Morrisey’s opponent, Rep. Evan Jenkins. “We think he should, and are highlighting the cowardice of someone who says he’s an outspoken, Trump-supporting conservative, and yet when a guy like Bannon tries to destroy Trump’s presidency, he doesn’t even have the courage to condemn him for what he said, let alone disavow him.”

In Nevada, Heller spokesman Keith Schipper blasted Tarkanian’s defense of Bannon Wednesday night: “Danny Tarkanian and Steve Bannon are frauds whose only skill is losing elections and costing Republicans seats.”

And in Wisconsin, state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s campaign manager called on her opponent, Kevin Nicholson, to disavow the endorsement he received from Bannon—but he didn’t, with campaign representative Brandon Moody swiping instead that Vukmir, too, had “aggressively sought” Bannon’s endorsement.

It is certainly possible that pressure will mount on Bannon-aligned candidates to more strongly condemn, and perhaps fully disavow, the Breitbart firebrand.

That is certainly the hope of many in and around Republican leadership in Washington, who view Bannon’s brand of ultra-hardline politics as deeply toxic for the party and a destructive force in GOP primary campaigns, and are optimistic that Trump’s public rebuke will undercut that influence.

“[With] Trump vaporizing Bannon today, there’s going to be a big shift in all of these potential primaries,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund group, which has clashed with Bannon for months. “I think Bannon will quickly get the memo that these people are not supporting Bannon. They’re supportive of the president. I think we’ll see these people following President Trump and not following Bannon after today.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck