Steve Bannon came to the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to detail the holy war he intends to wage against Republicans at the ballot box in next year’s midterm elections.
“This is not my war. This is our war. And y’all didn’t start it. The establishment started it,” President Trump’s controversial former chief strategist told the rapt crowd of Christian conservatives. “But I will tell you one thing — you all are going to finish it.”
The sins many incumbents were guilty of, according to Bannon, weren’t voting against the president’s proposals or necessarily being insufficiently conservative. It was that many were too allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and didn’t speak out when critics of the president, like retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., dared to voice their concerns about Trump’s leadership and temperament.
“Right now it’s a season of war on the GOP establishment,” Bannon declared.
Bannon’s speech wasn’t overtly religious, though he did begin by reading Scripture from Ecclesiastes 3 to make his case that the time was ripe for the type of crusade he wants to wage. And with the group of evangelical voters and political activists who attend the yearly event — at least some of whom believe God ordained Trump’s election to bring about a reckoning in Washington and to return the country to its Christian principles — he found a receptive crowd.
Since leaving the White House in August, Trump’s former campaign chairman has returned to his post as chairman of Breitbart News and made it his express mission to purge the Republican Party through 2018 primary challenges to sitting members of Congress. His efforts are reportedly being backed by conservative hedge-fund mogul Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah.
And ever since successfully backing Roy Moore in last month’s Alabama special Senate primary as he knocked off appointed Sen. Luther Strange, who had benefited in millions of spending on his behalf from a McConnell-aligned super PAC, Bannon believes that victory was only the beginning of things to come.
“A good man with good ideas can beat back any amount of money,” Bannon said. “The most powerful thing is an authentic candidate.”
He admitted that some of his targets may not seem obvious. After all, those incumbent Republicans he singled out — like Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — all have voted consistently with Trump. Even Heller, who initially opposed a White House-backed plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, even fell in line eventually when a pro-Trump group ran ads against him.
But for Bannon, even that isn’t enough — though there is time to repent.
“All of you folks that are so concerned that you’re going to get primaried and defeated — there’s time for a mea culpa,” he said. “You can come to a stick and condemn Sen. Corker. You can come to a stick, a microphone, and say ‘I’m not going to vote for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.’ “
Bannon particularly had his sights set on McConnell, signaling to the Senate’s top Republican that there were plenty of people gunning to overthrow him, likening such a coup to the “Ides of March.” Republicans, Bannon said — addressing McConnell directly — are “looking to find out who’s going to be Brutus to your Julius Caesar.”
Bannon’s pledge to take on incumbents is already giving some D.C. strategists heartache. Such intraparty fights, they worry, will only weaken what should be a favorable Senate map for the GOP, and ultimately distract from efforts to defeat Democrats. While Democrats have a chance to retake the House, Republicans have only a two-seat margin in the Senate they can easily grow given a number of vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in red states. That’s where Bannon should be focusing his efforts if he wants to give Trump more manpower on Capitol Hill, some GOP strategists say.
And for all of Bannon’s crowing about Moore’s win, the former Trump aide may not be able to replicate the same factors in other states. Bannon endorsed Moore late when he was already well ahead of Strange, who was also hamstrung by the circumstances of his appointment to succeed now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions by a scandal-plagued governor who’s since resigned.