The stewing GOP civil war could turn on Tuesday’s special election in Alabama, where insurgent GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore is trying desperately to hold off Democrat hopeful Doug Jones.
A Roy Moore win after most Republican lawmakers turned on him over multiple allegations of sexual wrongdoing could boost a budding populist insurrection claimed by Steve Bannon. The former White House chief strategist is planning a major onslaught on incumbent Senate Republicans in the 2018 primaries.
A Moore loss could beef up the Republican establishment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pulled support for Moore, defying President Trump and the Republican National Committee. A Moore loss would certainly bolster McConnell’s influence with Trump and conservative activists as he attempts to halt Steve Bannon’s uprising.
“I think a Moore victory will embolden Bannonites,” Dan Eberhart, an energy industry executive and Republican donor who supports Bannon, told the Washington Examiner. Republicans normally associated with the establishment are “more likely to listen” to Bannon “if he is ascendant,” Eberhart said.
Bannon is targeting incumbent Senate Republicans in a bid to eject McConnell loyalists and oust the majority leader.
Judge Moore fits the definition of the Steve Bannon mold; he is a fiery social conservative and anti-establishment who is at odds with Mitch McConnell and seeking what should be a safe Republican seat. Moore’s victory over appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the September GOP primary was fueled at least partly by local Alabama politics and a scandal in the state house. Moore’s long history in Alabama politics also has helped him weather political storms and attacks that might have sunk other Republicans.
But when McConnell and his super PAC sided with Luther Strange in the primary, Bannon rushed to Moore’s defense, and he used the nomination of the former state supreme court chief justice as momentum to take on the majority leader. It seemed like an easy bet until midway through the general election. More than a half-dozen women accused Moore, 70, of sexual misconduct decades ago when they were teenagers, including one who alleged assault and another who said she was 14 at the time, two years under the age of consent.
Moore vehemently denied all accusations, and Bannon held. He has traveled to Alabama twice in recent days to headline Roy Moore rallies. But even should Moore win, the stain of backing a flawed candidate who nearly blew an easy race and might yet cause the GOP political turmoil could haunt Bannon’s insurgency.
GOP donors who might finance Steve Bannon’s effort and have flirted with associating with him might shut him out. Candidates he is recruiting to primary Senate Republicans might demure, believing a path to victory is foreclosed — especially with McConnell’s forces arrayed against them.
“You know how hard it is for a Republican to lose a state like Alabama? It’s damn near impossible. But this crew of geniuses managed to figure it out,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “The other takeaway is, if you’re a Republican candidate facing a primary, do you want to be Steve Bannon’s other candidate? His first candidate is an alleged child molester.”
Steve Bannon, back running Breitbart since leaving the White House in August, has been cultivating figures normally associated with the party establishment to build support for his raid on Senate incumbents. A source close to the nationalist firebrand conceded that a Moore loss could be problematic in the short term.
But this Bannon confidant said that McConnell would still be unpopular with Republican primary voters, a weapon still available to Bannon in midterm primaries regardless of the outcome in Alabama. Indeed, McConnell is unpopular with the conservative grassroots, a challenge for his incumbents next year.
“A win opens up the floodgates,” the Bannon source said. “Let’s say he does lose. How do you think the average Republican voter outside of D.C. will look at the race? Will they say: ‘That damn Steve Bannon, or that damn Mitch McConnell, did everything he could to cost Moore the seat?’”
“A Moore win would indicate that America is fed up with establishment politics,” added Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who leads a caucus of conservatives in the House and is close with Bannon.
The GOP as presently fashioned is akin to a governing coalition of multiple competing factions that occasionally align and fight depending on the issue or the campaign, making for, at times, complicated intraparty warfare.
In Alabama, the notoriously fickle Trump as well as the RNC, are aligned with Bannon and Breitbart News and facing off against McConnell, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s Senate campaign arm, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But on the issue of Senate incumbents, Trump and McConnell — at least for now — are allied against Bannon. He is backing a challenger to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and recruiting challengers to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and others. Republican primary voters are deeply dissatisfied with the GOP-run Congress, sentiment Bannon is attempting to harness.
Republicans’ memories of insurgent primary challengers are long and unpleasant. In 2010, the party blew two winnable seats because of flawed nominees. The same happened in 2012, particularly in Missouri, when then-Rep. Todd Akin lost a Senate race to Democrat Claire McCaskill after imploding his candidacy with politically charged comments about rape.
Alabama has been a microcosm of this competition and could determine which side has the upper hand heading into the midterm.
“You have to vet your candidates, and you have to have someone who can win in a general election,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said. “If [Moore] were to lose this, it would send a message to Republicans that they’ve got to have a different style or a different approach.”
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