On Thursday morning, GOP strategist Karl Rove lambasted Steve Bannon in the Wall Street Journal for his involvement in Republican primaries.
By Thursday afternoon, Bannon’s allies were already plotting their revenge: mobilization against North Carolina Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger — Rove’s pick in that race.
“I’m familiar enough with Bannon’s 2018 efforts that this race has gone to the top of his list,” said Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist and the founder and CEO of the group American Majority Action. “It’s in direct correlation with the op-ed Karl Rove wrote. There will be consequences for these actions.”
Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist who has returned to helm the hard-right outlet Breitbart, has cast the 2018 primary season as a war against the Republican establishment and is now prominently involved in a series of GOP contests across the country. To date, his emphasis has been on the Senate.
But Bannon’s associates say he is now turning his attention to Pittenger and the congressman’s primary challenger, Mark Harris, and intends to meet with Harris.
He’s not the only one tuning into the race: Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows has also received “encouragement” to endorse in a number of races, including in this one — and he has not ruled out backing Harris, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
“That’s one of the races that has risen to the forefront,” said that source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
“I do think there’s a likelihood he gets involved with that,” said this source, who stressed that no final decisions have been made.
Meadows, a deeply conservative North Carolina congressman, has “typically never been involved in Republican primaries against a sitting member, but Dr. Harris, he’s a credible candidate who would be helpful in the majority.”
Harris is the former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, who came within 134 votes of unseating Pittenger in last cycle’s congressional primary and outraised him in the last fundraising quarter. He told McClatchy he would like to join Meadows’ Freedom Caucus should he win—and would “certainly be interested in being engaged and involved.”
Meanwhile, “Bannon now plans to meet with Harris,” said a source close to Bannon, in an interview Thursday after Rove’s op-ed posted. “Bannon has decided to target Pittenger.”
Rove served as a top political adviser to President George W. Bush and went on to help spearhead the formation of the political action committee American Crossroads. He is considered both a key party strategist and, in the eyes of some conservative activists, an icon of an establishment that is not sufficiently supportive of the president.
It’s an alliance his challenger is eager to exploit. Indeed, Bannon’s Breitbart already is referring to Pittenger as the “Karl Rove-backed” candidate.
"It, in many ways, draws the lines in this race,” said Harris, who also ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2014. “Karl Rove has certainly represented the establishment. He has been wrong as many times as he's been right in recent elections. Robert Pittenger has decided to set his stakes with the establishment and the status quo.”
Adam Brandon, the president of the conservative group FreedomWorks, said Harris had been his activists’ choice “for a while.”
“But gasoline was poured on the fire when this is becoming a proxy battle between Karl Rove and Steve Bannon,” he continued. “We were getting involved in that race regardless of what was happening, but this is kind of a choice between a typical establishment Republican guy and someone who reflects the grassroots.”
In an interview with McClatchy, Pittenger, a frequent and vocal Trump supporter, laughed when asked about the criticism he faced over his connection to Rove.
“How silly these guys are, grasping for anything,” he said. “Let’s take a reality check, OK? No. 1, look at the record. My record in voting [with] Trump. I have 95.6 percent. Higher than Congressman Mark Meadows, OK? So let’s be clear on that.”
Pittenger was referencing FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump score,” a tally of how frequently a member of Congress votes with Trump (Meadows’ number, by that measure, is 93.3 percent, though he has worked closely with the White House and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, attended a fundraiser for him last month).
Pittenger ticked through a long list of conservative endorsements he’s notched over the years, including the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life, and noted his efforts on economic and anti-abortion measures underway on Capitol Hill right now.
His campaign staff also passed along a document titled “Rep. Robert Pittenger: Unapologetically Pro Trump,” which detailed the “over 200” media appearances, six rallies, nine town halls and other instances in which Pittenger has offered robust defenses of the president.
“My conservative credentials are impeccable,” he said. “This is simply a little power play by a few people who are gaming this. I’ve stood for conservative principles. I will win this election because my positions, what I’ve stood for, will be validated, regardless of what type of smoke other people try to throw up there. Pure nonsense.”
Rove too was dismissive. Asked about Bannon’s reaction to his op-ed, Rove said: “Now he’s just making himself sound unhinged.”
But some conservative groups are paying attention to the contest for reasons that have little to do with Rove and much more to do with Harris’ last electoral performance—and recent fundraising numbers.
“I can tell you that Mark Harris is a rock-ribbed conservative, and he posted one hell of a third quarter,” said Andy Roth, vice president for government affairs at the conservative Club for Growth. He was referencing Harris’ $251,000 fundraising haul. “That opened our eyes quite a bit.”
Pittenger, who also faces a well-funded potential Democratic opponent, reported raising $242,000, though in the interview, said “we haven’t really started” and added that he is sure he will outraise Harris next time as he ramps up his fundraising focus.
In a recent interview with the Charlotte Observer, Rove praised Pittenger as a “consistent conservative in Congress,” and a “defender of the president’s policies.”
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rove sharply questioned Bannon’s broader influence and judgment, views shared by other party officials who note that a number of the candidates Bannon is backing more broadly were already in close talks with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s allies, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Trump himself has recently offered reassurances to a number of incumbent Senate Republicans who have been on Bannon’s radar as potential primary targets.
“Steve Bannon’s whole act is already falling apart,” said American Crossroads spokesman Chris Pack in a statement on Friday. “He still hasn’t found candidates to run against the conservative Republican senators the president strongly endorsed yesterday.”
But there is no doubt that Bannon is a well-connected and influential figure in the conservative ecosystem, and as he turned his attention to the Charlotte-area race late last week, several other conservative leaders did too.
Jenny Beth Martin, the head of the conservative group Tea Party Patriots, said that while her organization has not decided how to approach the race, the chatter she is hearing from grassroots activists about the contest “spiked more in the last week. I’m not talking thousands or even hundreds, just enough that I’m seeing this and going, this is unusual, to have so much right now about this race.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the father of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is also expected to headline a reception for Harris next month, according to an invitation reviewed by McClatchy.
“I believe there will now be multiple groups looking at getting involved in making this a serious primary challenge to him,” Ryun warned.