Trump-Bannon split spells political trouble for Missouri Senate hopeful Hawley

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley makes his acceptance speech on November 9, 2016, in Springfield, Mo.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley makes his acceptance speech on November 9, 2016, in Springfield, Mo. Kansas City Star

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has a Steve Bannon problem.

Hawley courted former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon shortly before entering the U.S. Senate race last year in a bid to oust incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. Now Hawley could face political trouble because of his silence over Bannon’s ugly split with President Donald Trump.

Hawley, a 37-year-old political newcomer, declined to comment on the Trump-Bannon fight until an hour after the publication of this article. Kelli Ford, his campaign spokeswoman, then sent a statement to McClatchy saying that "Josh has said from the beginning that he welcomes the support of anyone who wants to see a conservative Republican Senator elected from Missouri.

“Now that Senator McCaskill has voted against tax cuts for the middle class, it’s even more important that Republicans around the country unite to grow our majority,” Ford said. “Josh is proud to have the support of President Trump and from conservatives who want to defeat Senator McCaskill.”

Asked about Hawley’s silence earlier this week, Chris Pack, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s influential Senate Leadership Fund, wouldn’t speak about Hawley directly. But Pack made it clear it was time for GOP Senate hopefuls to choose sides.

“We think all candidates should disavow Steve Bannon after he accused the President’s family of treason and has been repudiated by the White House,” Pack said. “You are either with President Trump or with Steve Bannon.”

Trump bashed Bannon last week after the Breitbart executive was quoted in Michael Wolff’s explosive new book calling a 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians at Trump Tower “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” The New York Times reported on Tuesday afternoon that Bannon is stepping down from Breitbart News.

Trump fired off a blistering statement saying Bannon “has nothing to do with me or my Presidency” and “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”

Bannon apologized to the Trump family, but his already-tenuous standing as a political powerhouse plummeted, leaving Hawley and other GOP candidates who’d sought Bannon’s approval in an awkward spot.

Bannon had tried to be a GOP kingmaker, notably in the Alabama Senate race last month, when he enthusiastically supported Republican Roy Moore. Moore, dogged by allegations of improper sexual contact, narrowly lost to Democrat Doug Jones.

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.

A thumbs up from Bannon, once seen as a way for candidates to secure the GOP’s pro-Trump base, has now exposed them to attacks from primary opponents — and pressure from the Republican establishment to disavow Bannon publicly.

One Republican strategist involved in the midterms expressed frustration and bewilderment at the refusal of some candidates, including Hawley, to break with Bannon decisively.

Trump has not only made it safe to do so, argued this strategist, but he has made it imperative, setting up a choice between the president, who is enormously popular with the grassroots, and Bannon, whose influence appears to be dwindling by the day, especially as his major donors desert him.

“I don’t know why it is that some of these candidates are reluctant to distance themselves from him, but I think they’re going to face the consequences at some point if they don’t,” said this strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “McCaskill is a very clever politician. She’s going to use Bannon against Hawley.”

Associating yourself with Bannon is playing with fire for any general election audience, because it gives Democrats an easy cudgel to use over a candidate’s head, the strategist said.

“Now, it’s like pouring gasoline on that fire with the primary audience, because Trump has been very clear. And it’s not like Bannon has money behind him anymore, several other donors are not going to support his cause.”

As Missouri conservative talk show host Jamie Allman recently said on air, “Josh Hawley, you’ve got an issue here with Steve-a-reeno there.”

Hawley’s Republican primary opponents were quick to seize on his lack of comment to cast him as disloyal to the president.

“It must be embarrassing for Josh because he aggressively sought Steve Bannon’s support, and now I guess it’s no surprise that we haven’t heard anything,” said Austin Petersen, a former libertarian presidential candidate who is running for Senate in Missouri as a Republican.

Petersen said Hawley is “so beholden to the special interests who are bankrolling his campaign that he’s terrified of taking stands on controversial issues. He’s not his own man. He’s doing everything he can not to upset anyone.”

Although Petersen opposed Trump as president, said he’s been pleasantly surprised by Trump’s achievements in office and would take his side against Bannon in this latest spat.

“Yes, I do have the president’s back on this,” he said.

Courtland Sykes, another Republican primary contender in Missouri who joined Bannon at a rally for failed Alabama Senate candidate Moore last month, called Hawley a “Washington lackey” who only does what the Republican establishment tells him to do.

“I’m sure Hawley will have an opinion (on Bannon) once Mitch McConnell gives it to him,” Sykes said.

Sykes stopped short of repudiating Bannon himself.

“This tussle between President Trump and Steve is between President Trump and Steve,” he said. “Both men were instrumental in forwarding the America First Agenda. History will never change their roles in this movement.”

Tony Monetti, another Hawley Republican primary opponents, condemned Hawley’s silence on Bannon as a sign that he’s influenced by big-dollar donors.

“Josh Hawley has to run around seeking endorsements because he’s only looking for a career in Washington and no one trusts him anymore. Wasn’t he supposed to be Attorney General?” Monetti asked.

To Monetti, the Trump-Bannon news is “just noise” and what really matters is their ‘America First’ agenda.

“I’m sure The Donald and Steve will hug it out one day,” he said.

Someone who worked closely with Bannon this fall noted that Sykes, Petersen and Monetti or their representatives all previously indicated interest in receiving Bannon’s support.

Bryan Lowry contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

After a town hall gathering Tuesday in Independence, Senator Claire McCaskill was critical of Republican opponent Josh Hawley.