Trump-Bannon Feud Spills Into GOP Primary Races
The war of words Wednesday between President Trump and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is driving a wedge into already contentious Republican Senate primaries, giving several candidates a new line of attack against their Bannon-backed opponents.
Bannon had seized on his connection to Trump to try to exert influence on GOP congressional races, and some of his endorsees welcomed his backing as a proxy for Trump’s support. But after the president lashed out at his former adviser, candidates who have been favored by Bannon now find themselves in a tight spot.
Trump said in a statement Wednesday that Bannon had “lost his mind” after departing the White House last summer, and that he “doesn’t represent my base — he’s only in it for himself.”
That criticism came just hours after excerpts from a new book on Trump’s presidency were published in The Guardian; one included Bannon labeling as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” a June 2016 meeting between several members of Trump’s campaign -- including his son Donald Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner -- and a Russian lawyer.
In “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, Bannon is quoted singling out Trump’s son for the meeting.
“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Bannon said, according to the book.
Several Republican Senate candidates called on their primary opponents to disavow Bannon’s endorsement over the comments.
"It's nothing but helpful for us. Somebody should ask Chris McDaniel about it," said a spokesperson for Sen. Roger Wicker’s re-election campaign. "I don't think most voters in Mississippi care about Steve Bannon. They want President Trump's agenda passed, which is what Senator Wicker is doing." (McDaniel, who is eyeing a primary challenge against Wicker, did not immediately respond to RCP’s request for comment.)
Several candidates with backing from the former Trump strategist disassociated themselves from the comments, but did not back away from Bannon’s support.
Kevin Nicholson, a Marine veteran and businessman running for the Senate in Wisconsin, received Bannon’s endorsement in October, and tweeted at the time that he was “excited” and “humbled” to have the backing. Brandon Moody, a spokesman for Nicholson, said it was “disappointing” that Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir issued an attack on him just hours after the two candidates signed a unity pledge to support the primary winner in the general election against Democrat Tammy Baldwin. (Vukmir campaign manager Jess Ward said Wednesday it was “incredibly disappointing to learn of these vicious attacks by Steve Bannon against the president and his family. After the Alabama debacle, and now this, any self-respecting Republican should question whether Steve Bannon has any role in building our party. Kevin Nicholson should disavow his endorsement.”)
“Leah spent a great deal of time and energy seeking Steve Bannon’s endorsement and was unsuccessful. It’s easy to see why she is frustrated,” Moody said. “Meanwhile, Kevin Nicholson has built a broad and diverse coalition of supporters and endorsers, and he is focused on talking about the issues that matter most to Wisconsin voters. That’s what strong and winning campaigns do.”
A similar back-and-forth played out in West Virginia, where Bannon has endorsed state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the GOP primary against Rep. Evan Jenkins. (Both are vying to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin.) Bannon praised Morrisey on his Breitbart radio station earlier this year, calling him a “grinder.” A Morrisey spokeswoman at the time called Bannon a “leader in the conservative movement and one of President Trump’s strongest supporters.”
Jenkins, in a lengthy statement Wednesday, called the former White House adviser’s comments “vicious” and said Morrisey should renounce the endorsement.
“If he refuses, West Virginians will know that what President Trump said of Bannon today is also true of Morrisey: ‘He is only for himself,’” Jenkins said.
Nachama Soloveichik, the spokeswoman for Morrisey, said that the attorney general “does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family, and was proud to stand with President Trump in 2016 when they were both overwhelmingly elected in West Virginia and when he cast his vote for Trump in the Electoral College.”
The extent of Bannon’s influence was often subject to debate. Many Republican operatives saw his power as overstated, yet lesser known and insurgent candidates figured Bannon’s support could boost their name recognition and attract significant financial backing.
Ed Rollins, who runs a pro-Trump super PAC active in GOP Senate primaries, said Bannon could have been useful to candidates he was backing, especially in helping fund-raise, but that Wednesday’s criticism from Trump likely ended that prospect.
“My sense is after today the president tried out his nuclear bomb on him," said Rollins, who is chairing Arizona Senate hopeful Kelli Ward’s campaign. "… In Trump's eyes, he's certainly done."
The gulf that’s opened up between the president and his onetime adviser is not new. Bannon had backed controversial former Judge Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race last year, even though Trump originally backed Sen. Luther Strange. And though Trump eventually joined Bannon in supporting Moore, the president tried to disassociate himself from any blame for that loss -- and many Republicans cast blame for Moore’s failure on Bannon.
“Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country,” Trump said. “Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans.”
Trump’s scathing comments have allies of party leadership rejoicing. Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, blasted out Trump’s full statement to reporters and tweeted a GIF of McConnell smiling. The PAC also tweeted a photo of Bannon with Ward, who has been a consistent critic of McConnell’s. Steven Law, the president of the group, said Bannon was a “liability” to any candidate who embraced him.
“It’s hard to see how his toxicity helps anyone,” Law said.
Zach Henry, a spokesman for Ward, said Bannon was “only one of many high-profile endorsements” she has received, and that her focus remains on winning the seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake. She’s likely to face Rep. Martha McSally in the primary, though McSally has yet to officially enter the race.
“The daily parlor intrigue in Washington, D.C., does nothing to improve the lives of the hard-working men and women in this country,” Ward said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kevin Nicholson as Chris Nicholson.