Stephen Bannon may have lost the trappings of governmental power upon leaving the White House in August. But he’s living large and apparently having fun in his new role as Mitch McConnell’s nemesis and the scourge of Establishment Republicans in the Senate. After taking a lot more of the credit for Roy Moore’s win in Alabama than he deserves, Bannon is now semi-publicly making plans to back as many as 15 Senate candidates next year, including primary challenges to as many as six of the seven Republican incumbents up for reelection.
According to Bloomberg News, Ted Cruz is the only 2018 incumbent GOP senator who doesn’t have to worry about a Bannon-backed challenger. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller are already in the crosshairs. John Barrasso, Deb Fischer, and Orrin Hatch could be next. And in many open races or contests to choose challengers to incumbent Democrats, Bannon will apparently identify a true conservative/populist favorite (e.g., Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee, and if John McCain has to leave his seat before 2018, Paul Gosar in Arizona).
The Establishment-versus-conservative-insurgent dynamic is a familiar one for Senate Republicans, of course. From 2010 through 2014, it played out in an array of GOP primaries, most often won by “Establishment” figures who co-opted right-wing, Tea Party positions, dragging the entire Senate caucus to the right. As we will soon be reminded frequently, some primaries won by “insurgents,” notably in 2012 (Todd Akin in Missouri and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware), probably sacrificed winnable seats to the Democrats.
At this early point, the most interesting thing about Bannon’s reported senatorial purge is that it’s based not on conservative/populist ideology (opposition to Establishment trade deals, America First foreign policy, anti–Wall Street gestures), but on legislative tactics and leadership:
[Bannon will] 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.
The first litmus test is not surprising: Mitch McConnell has over the years become an all-purpose villain for those who want the GOP to act purely as an instrument for the conservative movement: He wears his lack of principle, and pride in deal-making, like a comfortable suit. He is also a convenient scapegoat for the inability of the Republican Senate to accomplish much of anything in 2017 other than the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch.
The death-to-the-legislative-filibuster condition is more surprising, and leads to the even bigger question of whether Bannon is acting as an agent for his old friend the 45th president of the United States now that their differences of opinion over Alabama are in the rearview mirror. Trump is famously preoccupied with the filibuster, even though the ability to pass legislation by a simple Senate majority would not have avoided the serial failure of GOP health-care legislation.
Trump aside, though, Bannon’s dual litmus test does comport nicely with the longtime right-wing view that only weak leadership and devilish Democratic tactics (from the filibuster to court rulings to “unconstitutional” executive orders) have prevented a total conservative makeover of the political system. From this perspective, a rigidly conservative Senate GOP caucus willing to impose its will by a simple majority can make short work of the Obama legacy, and then get to work on unraveling the Great Society and the New Deal as well.
The single biggest obstacle to getting rid of the legislative filibuster isn’t McConnell per se, but the fact that 29 Republican senators (along with 32 Democrats) very recently signed a letter defending the ancient practice. Only four of them (Senators Flake, Hatch, Heller, and Wicker) are among Bannon’s putative 2018 targets. So unless the purge intimidates Republicans safe from a direct challenge next year, it’s not going to succeed in creating a 50-vote (plus Mike Pence) Senate.
The ultimate question, of course, is how seriously we should take Bannon’s plans in the first place.
In Alabama, Roy Moore had 100 percent name ID, a long-established base of very-likely-to-vote supporters, and most of all, an incumbent opponent who was a sitting duck: He was appointed to the job under extremely dubious circumstances, and pretty much came across as a puppet for the D.C. backers (first Mitch McConnell, and then the White House) who called every shot in his campaign. The idea that Steve Bannon “purged” sad-sack Luther Strange is laughable.
Some of the 2018 Bannon targets we are hearing about now are either Strange-like weaklings that were already in trouble (e.g., Flake and Heller). Others may not be vulnerable at all (Orrin Hatch could probably eat Steve Bannon for breakfast if he wanted, and if he retires, Mitt Romney, vastly more popular in Utah than Donald Trump, would trounce any Breitbartian candidate easily). Bannon’s reported favorites for primary challenges are less than ideal: Nevada’s Danny Tarkanian is one more loss away from the dreaded “perennial candidate” label, and the cartoon villain Erik Prince, looking at a challenge to John Barrasso, has about as many ties to Iraq as to Wyoming.
From the GOP’s institutional point of view, perhaps the best thing about Bannon’s planned “purge” is that it is focused on a legislative chamber that it will be very difficult for Republicans to lose next year, even if incumbents go down like dominoes. If it was aimed at House “moderates” needed to keep the GOP in control, purge backers might quickly become partywide pariahs. Beyond that, Bannon does offer some assets the Tea Party insurgents of the past did not quite have: a national platform via Breitbart News and a donor network centered on the Mercers. Add to that the tacit backing of the White House — if that’s what it is — and you have the ingredients for a major 2018 media narrative if nothing else, and perhaps another difficult year for Mitch McConnell. It will be a while, though, before we know whether Steve Bannon is one scary cat or just a paper tiger.