In the grand narrative of American politics, there is a lofty – and often lucrative – place for the strategists and advisers who guide winning presidential campaigns.
Steve Bannon, who joined Donald Trump’s team as its chief executive less than three months before the 2016 election, has sought to parlay his role in the candidate’s shock victory into a political empire of his own.
So far, though, Bannon’s efforts have mostly served to amp up the already considerable internal angst in Republican circles, and elevate at least a few candidates with questionable backgrounds.
In theory, it’s all part of a grand strategy to remake the party in the image Trump projected during the campaign and through parts of his first year in office. But the reality is less cut and dry. Bannon’s slate of preferred candidates lack any obvious ideological through line and some of his most promising potential allies have ties to the party establishment.
According a Bloomberg report from early October, Bannon’s top preconditions center more on personality and tactics than anything else. Per Jennifer Jacobs and Bill Allison: “He’ll support only candidates who agree to two conditions: They will vote against McConnell as majority leader, and they will vote to end senators’ ability to block legislation by filibustering.”
Bannon’s highest profile endorsement is, for now, Alabama’s Roy Moore. He backed Moore in a primary contest with Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed by former Governor Robert Bentley and backed ahead of the vote by Trump.
How much sway Bannon had in that contest is open for debate. That Moore’s campaign, in which Bannon has no official role or title, has since turned into a colossal mess would be more difficult to dispute. In the aftermath of a Washington Post report detailing allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, Bannon pulled from the Trump playbook and attacked the press.
“The Bezos Amazon Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump is the same Bezos Amazon Washington Post that dropped the dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore,” Bannon said at a gathering of conservative activists in Manchester, New Hampshire, on November 9. “Now is that a coincidence? That’s what I mean when I say opposition party, right?”
But since then, more women have spoken out, going public with a series of charges against Moore, who has been asked to step aside by top Republicans in Washington as his support erodes in the polls.
Former congressman, war veteran and felon Michael Grimm, who is challenging his successor, Rep. Dan Donovan, in a Republican primary in New York, has also won Bannon’s support. Like with Moore, Bannon has no formal position in Grimm’s campaign.
Grimm has sought to tie himself closely to Trump (see tweet above). But he’s best known for two things – being caught on camera, during his time in office, threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony in Washington; and his subsequent guilty plea on a charge of tax evasion. He would resign and spend seven months in prison. Donovan won the special election to fill his seat.
Bannon’s “season of war” against the Republican establishment has also taken him to Arizona, where he is backing Republican Kelli Ward to replace Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic who announced his retirement plans last month as it became clear he’d struggle in a primary contest.
Ward has run before, losing handily to Sen. John McCain in the 2016 GOP primary. Not long after McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in July, Ward made waves by saying during a radio interview that he should “step away as quickly as possible.”
Ward also said that, should McCain follow her advice, she would “certainly hope” to be considered for an appointment to his seat by Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey – then made her case on the air.
“I have a proven track record of years in the state senate of being extremely effective and of listening to the voice of the people that I represent,” Ward said. “And you know, I made an extremely good showing against Senator McCain against all odds. You know, he outspent me nearly 10-to-one. He has a super PAC called Grassroots Action PAC that spent over 10 million dollars seeking to destroy my character, my reputation, and my political future.”
That was before Flake took his dramatic exit from the race. Now there a number of Arizona Republicans, including Rep. Martha McSally, considering Senate runs of their own. At least one, state treasurer and former Trump campaign chief operating officer Jeff DeWit could divide the pro-Trump primary vote.
Bannon is also looking to convince former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to challenge Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso in 2018. Prince’s Blackwater, a private military contractor, was a controversial presence alongside US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A long series of legal issues, most notably a 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that left 17 dead, eventually cost the company its lucrative government deal.
Prince, though, has remained a vocal advocate for the use of mercenary forces. The New York Times came under criticism in late August when it published an op-ed he wrote pushing for a surge of contractors – perhaps his own – into Afghanistan.
Bannon’s list also includes some more mainstream conservative hopefuls, like Montana state auditor Matt Rosendale. In Nevada, Danny Tarkanian’s primary challenge to Sen. Dean Heller won over the Breitbart boss. Tarkanian, who has run and lost multiple races, announced his entry on Fox and Friends, Trump’s favorite morning television show, and has criticized Heller for being insufficiently supportive of the President.
If Bannon, with the backing of the billionaire Mercer family, can help direct the more divisive characters in his sprawling camp to a series of victories – not just in their hotly contested primaries, but in November showdowns against Democrats – his legend, and influence in Republican politics, will grow. This time, though, no one will chalk it up to the good luck of catching on late with Trump.