With a call for one sitting Republican senator to resign and announcement that he plans to back primary challengers for nearly every sitting Republican in the Senate, Steve Bannon, former White House strategist and past and present chairman of Breitbart News, has effectively declared war on the Republican Party. While ostensibly still backing President Trump, Bannon’s effort also includes challengers to some Trump allies.
Bannon’s primary target at the moment is Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). After Corker and Trump engaged in a flame war on Twitter over the weekend, Bannon called for the Tennessean to resign for his disloyalty to President Trump. In a tweet, Corker, who is not running for re-election, likened the White House to a “day care center” and said in a New York Times interview that President Trump acted “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something” and that his lack of diplomatic skills could put the world “on the path to World War III.”
“If Bob Corker has any honor, any decency, he should resign immediately,” Bannon told Sean Hannity on Fox News.
“This is what they think about President Trump behind closed doors,” Bannon added. “He happened to tell The New York Times exactly what he thought, it’s totally unacceptable. In a time of war, we have troops in Afghanistan, in the Northwest pacific and Korea. We have a major problem that could be like World War I in the South China Sea. In the Persian Gulf, we have American lives at risk every day.”
That Bannon equates Corker’s comments with all Republican incumbents provides insight into why he plans to try to unseat practically every Republican senator. The Washington Post notes that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is reportedly the only senator who will not be fending off a Bannon-backed challenger, but a CNN source said, “Nobody’s safe.” Cruz was a favorite of Bannon’s Breitbart until Donald Trump usurped that role. Cruz angered many Trump supporters with his long-delayed endorsement of Donald Trump and his heated exchanges with Trump in the primary.
Breitbart quotes Andy Surabian, a senior adviser to the Great America Alliance and ex-White House aide, who said, “We’re planning on building a broad anti-establishment coalition to replace the Republican Party of old with fresh new blood and fresh new ideas.” The site notes that the Great America Alliance is a “pro-Trump Super PAC.”
The Breitbart article also quotes Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who said, “The conservative tidal wave that carried Donald Trump into the White House may soon be eclipsed by what appears to be a conservative tsunami that threatens the [Republican] establishment death grip on the U.S. Senate.”
Much of the antipathy to the “establishment” Republicans seems to stem from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) refusal to end the filibuster and change Senate rules to allow passage of bills with a simple majority, commonly referred to as the “nuclear option.” President Trump urged McConnell to change Senate rules in a tweet in August. Mr. McConnell told Politico in April, “There’s not a single senator in the majority who thinks we ought to change the legislative filibuster. Not one.”
Surabian hinted at the “nuclear option” when he noted, “The group of candidates we are looking to support in 2018 are all bound together in their agreement that the new Republican Party must be bold in their thinking and aggressive in their tactics.”
Bannon’s tactics have potential downsides. If his candidates defeat Republican incumbents in the primary, they still must win the general election. This could present a problem for some Bannon-backed candidates, particularly in moderate states. President Trump alluded to this risk in deep red Alabama when he campaigned for incumbent Luther Strange (R-Ala.) against primary challenger Roy Moore, who was supported by Bannon. With a slim majority of only two seats, Bannon’s war against Republican incumbents could tip the Senate to the Democrats.
A second problem is that, if Bannon’s plan succeeds and the filibuster is killed permanently, Democrats would have the same advantages the next time they are in power. President Trump’s agenda could be passed more easily without the cloture rule, but it would also be easier for the next Democrat majority to repeal Trump’s reforms and enact their own leftist agenda.
Bannon’s frontal assault on sitting Republicans brings the GOP civil war into the open. Trump supporters like Bannon are attempting to purge the party of traditional Republicans who represent the “establishment,” regardless of voting records or conservative credentials. CNN notes that even John Barasso (R-Wy.), typically considered a Trump ally, is a target of Bannon’s effort.
It is normally very difficult to unseat incumbents, but 2018 may be different. There may be additional retirements that leave open seats vulnerable to Bannon’s candidates. Further, polling shows that President Trump is far more popular among Republicans than congressional leaders. If Republican voters back primary challengers supported by Bannon and President Trump over party incumbents, it will signal a permanent shift in the direction of the Republican Party.