GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers

Establishment Republicans are skeptical that former judge Roy Moore’s victory in last week’s Alabama GOP primary runoff means that an alliance of insurgent conservative groups, led by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, is about to knock off more Republican incumbents.

Bannon and his allies have used Moore’s Tuesday night victory over the establishment-backed Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock McConnell PAC demands Moore return its money Graham on Moore: 'We are about to give away a seat' key to Trump's agenda MORE (R-Ala.) as a springboard to float challenges against a fleet of Republican incumbents. Bannon and his allies see the wind at their backs after a unified and high-profile push, arguing that the win means that no incumbent is safe.

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But some establishment Republican strategists aren’t buying it. They argue that the influence Bannon and his Breitbart News outlet had on Moore’s victory is overblown and that the unique set of circumstances that won Alabama won’t be easily transferable to other primary challenges across the country.

“Moore was leading this race long before Bannon got involved and he won this race for reasons that have nothing to do with Bannon’s involvement,” said Alex Conant, a strategist who worked on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCongress faces growing health care crisis in Puerto Rico The Hill's 12:30 Report Colbert mocks Trump for sipping water during speech on Asia trip MORE’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign.

“There were a lot of extenuating circumstances that made it difficult for Sen. Strange to win.”

The Alabama race hinged on several factors that are unlikely to reappear the next time Bannon tries to take out a GOP incumbent.

For one, Strange had been appointed to the seat temporarily by then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who later resigned in disgrace and pleaded guilty to charges related to an alleged affair. Critics blasted Strange, the state’s former attorney general, for accepting the appointment even as his office investigated Bentley, opening Strange up to accusations he won the seat through a corrupt deal with Bentley.

Moore also had a unique popularity with Alabama’s evangelical GOP voters, thanks to his role in two controversial court showdowns — one ordering him to remove a Ten Commandments statue he commissioned from public land and one over the federal Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

A post-election memo from the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), the super PAC aligned with Senate GOP leaders that spent millions on Strange’s behalf, points to both of those factors as keys to Moore’s victory.

“The massive resources that independent groups can deploy in races tend to obscure the paramount importance of candidate quality,” read the memo from SLF President Steven Law.

“Moore is a folk hero with rural religious voters who admire Moore’s intransigent stands on displaying the Ten Commandments and bucking the U.S. Supreme Court on gay marriage. ... Most critically, Strange was dogged by his appointment to the Senate by disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley.”

The memo, first obtained by The New York Times, also downplays the role of Bannon and Breitbart, as well as its own impact on the race. It adds that Moore was uniquely suited for a low-turnout special election campaign that relied on an enthusiastic base of supporters, a dynamic that will be hard to reproduce in other states’ primaries. 

Bannon plans to replicate Moore’s success in other Republican Senate primaries with the same coalition of right-wing groups and personalities. In Alabama, Bannon and Breitbart joined forces with the pro-Trump Great America Alliance super PAC as well as Wayne King, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows’s (R-N.C.) political adviser, to rally grass-roots support for Moore on the ground.

That support included a flurry of rallies over the final days of the campaign that featured appearances by Bannon, as well popular faces on the insurgent right such as 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and “Brexit” architect Nigel Farage.

Moore’s victory energized Bannon and his allies. Bannon introduced Moore at his victory party and went on in the days after the race to position the Alabama win as just the start of the conservative backlash to GOP incumbents.

Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSpokesman: Flake’s vote on tax reform will have nothing to do with Trump Trump slams Flake over hot-mic comments: Senator's career is 'toast' Bannon: McConnell 'picking up his game' because of our 'insurgent movement' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerAnother perfect storm: Why we must act before flood insurance runs dry Senators introduce bipartisan gun background check bill Dem PAC bullish on Senate chances MORE (R-Nev.) have long been expected to face tough primary challengers backed by insurgents like Bannon. But Bannon’s camp has lately begun boosting the prospect of a primary against Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerUS warship collides with Japanese tug boat FCC votes to limit program funding internet access for low-income communities Senate passes resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training MORE (R-Miss.) by Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite who ran a contentious primary battle in 2014 against the establishment-backed Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTrump asks for another billion in disaster aid Congressional leaders eyeing two-year caps deal up to 0 billion Senate passes resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training MORE.

Bannon’s battle map is likely to get larger, sources familiar with the plans told The Hill. All in all, the group is already looking at candidates in almost a dozen states, with more possibly on the horizon.

It’s clear that the unique circumstances in Alabama played to their favor. But they are confident that Alabama is proof that the anti-establishment fervor that Bannon helped Trump channel on his way to the presidency is still strong in the GOP primary electorate. 

“It’s only going to get harder for [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock McConnell PAC demands Moore return its money Klobuchar taking over Franken's sexual assault bill MORE and his friends at the Senate Leadership Fund because they won’t have President Trump backing their preferred candidates in races like Arizona or Nevada,” said Andrew Surabian, Bannon’s former White House political adviser, who worked on the pro-Moore push. 

“The other side knows what I know: Mitch McConnell today, in a Republican primary, is what [House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi is to Republican voters in a general election — absolutely toxic.”

Chris Pack, SLF’s spokesman, told The Hill he believes populist candidates would launch primary challenges even if Moore lost. 

“We would have had primary opponents regardless. If they had lost, they would have been men on fire trying to get retribution for an Alabama loss,” he said.

But there’s one thing that all sides agree on: The Republican base’s anger with Republicans in Congress is palpable.

One Senate GOP campaign manager pointed specifically to the failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare as a source of deep frustration within the base. Now that even full Republican control of Washington wasn’t enough to repeal the health-care law, despite years of promises, Republican primary voters could be willing to shake up the party once again. 

“They want to see Trump’s reforms pass,” the campaign manager said. 

So as Republican incumbents work to insulate themselves from populist challenges over the coming months, they’ll have to be sure to directly address those concerns, not just paper over them with overwhelming air cover. Bannon has proved to be particularly good at that, Republicans say, but he doesn’t have to have a monopoly. 

“The electorate was angry at Washington in 2016 and the electorate remains angry at Washington in 2017. ... Any candidate who fails to appreciate voters’ anger is going to struggle in the midterms regardless of party and regardless of whether they have Trump’s support or not,” Conant said.

“Bannon is able to tap into that anger in a way that the establishment at times is not, but that should not be confused with Bannon having undue influence or power,” he added.