Outside the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama, late Sunday night, a black cat slinked by the sidewalk and into the deserted street. Matthew Boyle, the lead political journalist at Breitbart News, paused for a beat, taking a drag of his Marlboro Light. “That’s a sign Doug Jones is gonna lose,” he said.
That caused some other journalists to burst out laughing.
Boyle’s a goofy figure, with a childlike face (if the child smoked) beneath his Boston Red Sox hat and posture that suggests his bones are made of Silly Putty. But he wasn’t kidding; he saw an omen in the cat. As the official Washington editor for Breitbart News and the unofficial mini-me to Steve Bannon’s Dr. Evil, Boyle had bet big on Jones’s opponent, Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in the special election to fill the United States Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Upon leaving the White House late this summer, Bannon reassumed his position as the chairman of Breitbart News and declared a “season of war” on the Republican establishment. He promised to install in its place “economic populists” who would push through a “nationalist” policy agenda, which he believes the “political class” has prevented. He began accumulating far-right or just plain far-out candidates throughout the country and pledged to support them in primaries against traditional conservatives.
While Bannon is always talking about everything in terms of war and battle, blood and guts, his track record as some kind of populist kingmaker — beyond having helmed Donald Trump’s campaign in its final ten weeks — is barren. Yet when Trump endorsed Moore’s primary opponent, Luther Strange, it almost cast Bannon as a rival to the president. And when Moore won over Strange, when Trump endorsed Moore, and when Moore led in the polls ahead of Election Day, it seemed at least possible that Bannon’s political power wasn’t entirely a PR fabrication.
Still, Tuesday would be the real test for Bannon. As part of the victory push for Moore, Breitbart assumed a role similar to the one it played during the 2016 election, acting as part of a political apparatus rather than anything resembling a news outlet. Boyle stationed himself on the ground in Alabama almost permanently, which he joked could make him eligible to vote. Between the Republican primary on September 26 and the general on December 12, he set foot in his Washington, D.C., apartment just once.
In that time, he wrote 28 stories about the race and he edited even more. His coverage was unquestioning and supportive, and as Moore became the subject of multiple allegations regarding his romantic and sexual conduct toward teenage and underage girls, he only dug his heels in.
Oftentimes, a headline contained only an outlandish theory floated by Moore, as in, “JUDGE ROY MOORE: ESTABLISHMENT REPUBLICANS, DEMOCRATS, WASHINGTON POST MAY HAVE COLLUDED IN SMEAR.” Others were naked flattery such as, “MULTIPLE STANDING OVATIONS FOR JUDGE ROY MOORE AS HE HAMMERS WASHINGTON POST SMEARS AT VETERANS DAY EVENT.” Several stories were billed as “EXCLUSIVE,” and revolved around quotes from Moore or his wife, Kayla, serving as campaign press releases. Breitbart reported Kayla Moore said the allegations against her husband were “just not true — any of it,” for instance.
Boyle also published several “EXCLUSIVE” polls, a majority of which showed Moore beating Jones. In the final “EXCLUSIVE” poll published by Breitbart before Election Day, on November 30, Moore led Jones by eight points. Breitbart, citing one of these exclusive polls, crowed that Moore, “SOLIDIFIES LEAD OVER RADICAL DEMOCRAT DOUG JONES.”
As Boyle’s story made clear, the survey had been conducted by Rick Shaftan, a conservative operative who lives in North Carolina and conducts his work for campaigns at state and national levels remotely, often from his porch. Boyle described Shaftan as working for Atlantic Media and Research, which is true but incomplete; in the Alabama election, Shaftan also worked for Restore Our Godly Heritage PAC (or ROGH PAC) and Courageous Conservatives PAC, both political action committees supporting Moore. By law, political action committees can’t coordinate with the campaigns they work on behalf of, meaning that the polls Shaftan conducted for the Moore campaign couldn’t be sent directly to the Moore campaign. Shaftan was also at the Renaissance on Sunday night. As he explained it to me last weekend, he provided polls to Boyle because he knew if they were on Breitbart, the campaign would see them. In essence, he was treating the site as a high powered amplifier for specific information he wanted to send to the campaign. Count it as yet another example of how bizarrely blurred the line between news and political operation is at Breitbart.
Boyle retreated from the scene of the cat omen and into the bar on the hotel’s patio, where heat lamps hung overhead and a band played country music. After meeting in person for the first time, Shaftan brought Boyle two beers. The national media, they agreed, didn’t realize that Moore wasn’t going to win by some small margin — in fact, his win might even be bigger than single digits.
The next night, Breitbart and the Moore campaign seemed to merge completely when Bannon headlined a Moore rally in a barn in a rural southeast part of the state. Boyle unselfconsciously strolled through the press area and then upstairs, where the Breitbart radio show was being recorded in a green room. On the program, Bannon interviewed Moore, who said he relied on the gospel while under attack in the campaign.
By Wednesday evening, following Doug Jones’s nearly two-percentage-point win, it was hard to find a mention of Roy Moore among the top headlines at Breitbart.com.