As Democrats reveled in a stunning Senate win in Alabama, mainstream Republicans wasted no time in blaming a powerful strategist for the party’s disastrous political setback: anti-establishment rabble-rouser Steve Bannon.
From the halls of Congress to party operators, analysts and conservative media figures, Republicans heaped scorn on the former White House advisor, upbraiding him for backing such a tainted candidate in Roy Moore that the party lost a Senate seat from a state that Trump won last year in a landslide.
Bannon, once seen as a rising political superstar who whispered his advice in the new president’s ear, has no shortage of enemies within the party, as concerns mount that his brand of populist rebellion was stoking a battle for the party’s soul.
“I would hope he would” bow out of politics, “but I don’t think he will,” Alabama’s Republican Senator Richard Shelby, who refused to support Moore, told AFP.
Bannon is “an activist (with) an agenda, but he doesn’t speak for me or mainstream Republicans.”
Bannon, 64, is perhaps the most politically powerful person in America over the past decade who has never run for public office.
He has been described as an iconoclast, brilliant and combative, deeply involved in crafting Trump’s America First policy, and responsible in large part for fueling the civil war tearing at the Republican Party.
Bannon saw Moore as a partner in his outside-in war against Republicans in “the swamp” known as Washington.
After Moore’s embarrassing loss, congressman Peter King vented his frustration, saying Bannon looked “like some disheveled drunk who wandered on to the political stage,” and “is not the type of person we need in politics.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, a political group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Moore’s defeat was “a brutal reminder” that candidate quality matters.
“Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco,” the group steamed.
While most Republicans in the national arena were running in the opposite direction from Moore after several women accused him of sexually assaulting or harassing them when they were teen girls, Bannon went all in.
He was there in the Republican primary when Moore defeated Luther Strange, who had been Trump’s pick — and whom many Republicans say would have easily defeated Democrat and soon-to-be senator Doug Jones.
And he was there again at Moore’s final campaign rally, when Bannon said “there’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better” than to go against Trump, who ultimately threw his support behind Moore.
Mainstream Republicans may be furious over Bannon’s wreaking havoc on the party, but the battle between purists and party pragmatists will continue beyond the 2018 election, said John Geer, who chairs Vanderbilt University’s political science department.
“He is willing to lose some elections to leave his stamp on the party” as the battle plays out in states like Nevada, Arizona and Kentucky, Geer told AFP.
“He might get control of the party, but in so doing he will hand majorities to the Democrats in Congress. That is a tradeoff many Republicans are not willing to make, but Bannon is.”
After leaving the White House, Bannon returned to running the conservative news outlet Breitbart.
While Republicans conduct a post-mortem into what went wrong in the Alabama race, and Republican stalwarts like former House speaker Newt Gingrich call for a “new strategy” going forward, Bannon is unlikely to go away, according to Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s got him a lot of attention and strengthened his hand with fringe contributors,” Voss said.
Such outsiders often succeed better by losing races, especially if they are done in a high-profile public way like Moore’s Alabama debacle, because it will raise awareness — and funding — for the cause, he added.
“Maybe his brand gets tarnished and someone else rises,” Voss said. “But there will be a future Steve Bannon, regardless of who it is.”