Oct. 5, 2017 — Several articles have appeared in the past few days contemplating former presidential advisor Steve Bannon’s perceived political strength, most specifically regarding his actions involving recruiting Republican primary challengers against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) loyalists.
While Bannon appears in good stead vis-à-vis financial backers — with the billionaire Mercer family serving as his monetary base — those running the McConnell-aligned outside political operation downplay just how strong the insurgents might be opposite 2018 Senate GOP incumbents standing for re-election.
Valid points resonate with both sides. Buoyed by Alabama former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s victory over appointed Sen. Luther Strange in last week’s special Republican run-off election, the Bannon forces, who heaped attack ads on the interim incumbent, were naturally taking a great deal of credit for the victory. And, without doubt, anyone thinking of challenging a sitting senator is greatly encouraged after seeing the Alabama outcome.
Steven Law, who runs the Senate Leadership Fund that is unofficially associated with Sen. McConnell, and who spent millions trying to nominate Sen. Strange, correctly points out in a memo to supporters that the interim incumbent began the race in a disadvantageous position, a setting from which he could never free himself. He argues this was a greater negative for Strange than any attack put forth by Moore and his outside allies.
Then-state Attorney General Strange being appointed to the Senate by a governor under investigation – an inquiry Strange subsequently denied existed immediately after receiving the federal appointment, a claim that later proved to be subterfuge when indictments were brought forth – appeared unseemly, thus giving credence to Moore’s “Washington swamp” line of attack.
But, the Bannon-influenced independent ads clearly helped Moore. The eventual Republican nominee had less than one-quarter of the financial resources that the Strange forces possessed, and outside organizations running direct attack ads on the interim incumbent allowed Moore to use his scarce resources to drive home the “Washington swamp” theme. This further allowed the challenger to attack from a higher plane – going after McConnell and the Washington, DC culture rather than directly hitting Sen. Strange. In fact, Moore’s ads barely even mentioned his opponent, choosing to exclusively focus on the bigger picture.
If Bannon centers his political advocacy operation solely on Senate Republican primaries, his effect will be minimal. Republicans only have to defend eight Senate seats in this cycle, and at least half: Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), John Barrasso (R-WY), Deb Fischer (R-NE), and Ted Cruz (R-TX), see no imminent nomination threat.
Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), both have active GOP opponents but it is unclear if the loosely knit Bannon organizations and backers will support them or attempt to find stronger candidates. Neither Danny Tarkanian (against Sen. Heller in Nevada), nor Kelli Ward, (opposing Sen. Flake in Arizona) are viewed as particularly strong, though early polling suggests that even they have a reasonable chance of attaining victory.
The remaining potential targets would then be Sen. Bob Corker’s open Tennessee seat, and the budding primary challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).
The question in Tennessee is which conservative to back? Would it be Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood), former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Crockett County), ex-state Rep. Joe Carr who challenged Sen. Lamar Alexander in the 2014 Republican primary and held him below 50 percent, or someone not yet in the race? In this case, too many conservatives vying for the nomination could backfire and the split support could create an easy path for Gov. Bill Haslam to enter and win the nomination with just a plurality vote in a state that has no run-off system.
Mississippi voters may witness the return of state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellis County), who almost denied Sen. Thad Cochran (R) re-nomination in 2014. McDaniel is seriously considering challenging Sen. Wicker, and could do so with major support coming from the Bannon/Mercer outside operation. The senator is prepared for such a battle, however, and will likely be able to top whatever the challengers bring to the table. But, would the senator’s resources be enough, especially if the Republican Congress heads into primary season with little or nothing in the way of accomplishments to assuage the Republican base voter?
Because the number of major Republican statewide races is so limited in 2018, it is unlikely that primary challenges will become the order of the day. But, laying such seeds for the future with a major upset in, say Mississippi, is a real possibility. And, many more significant challenges could appear in the House.