WASHINGTON — With the 2018 elections looming, House Republican campaign operatives have negotiated a cease-fire of sorts with Steve Bannon and his anti-establishment allies — even as Bannon wages war on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate GOP incumbents.
The peace talks were led by Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and John Rogers, the NRCC’s executive director — both of whom are charged with protecting the House Republican majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
Stivers and Rogers met with Bannon last week to gauge where House incumbents stood in the brewing GOP civil war, which has pit Bannon against McConnell.
“It was very apparent from the start that Congressman Stivers wanted to find ways to work with Steve,” said Andrew Surabian, a top Bannon ally. “And it didn’t take long for Steve make it known that he was not at war with the NRCC or Congressman Stivers.”
Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the NRCC, framed the meeting as an informal get-together so Stivers and Bannon could get to know each other.
“I can just tell you the intention of this meeting was simply to establish a relationship,” said Gorman.
Stivers and Rogers asked whether Bannon would be willing to sign a fundraising appeal on behalf of the House Republican campaign committee, and Bannon said yes, he would consider that, according to an NRCC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the meeting publicly.
That stands in stark contrast to Bannon’s role in the 2018 Senate races, where he and his allies have launched a blistering crusade against several Senate GOP incumbents whom they see as too close to McConnell. Bannon believes McConnell and his “establishment” loyalists are a major impediment to enacting President Trump’s agenda, and they’re trying to recruit candidates in Wyoming, Mississippi and other states to mount primary challenges against GOP incumbents, with the ultimate goal of dethroning McConnell.
Control of both the House and the Senate will be up for grabs in the 2018 elections, and McConnell’s allies fear that Bannon’s anti-incumbent crusade could jeopardize the GOP’s narrow hold on the upper chamber. The Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC, has started to fight back against Bannon.
“Our concern is that Steve Bannon has a long paper trail of controversial statements and associations that do not play well with general election audiences and viable candidates who are perceived as too close to him, will have to drag around his baggage next fall,” Steven Law, the Senate Leadership Fund’s president, told USA TODAY last week. “Steve Bannon has threatened a resource wasting war on conservative Republican incumbents who support the president’s agenda 95% or more of the time.”
Political experts say the House GOP majority is more imperiled than the GOP’s hold on the Senate. So it makes sense for Stivers to reach out to Bannon and head off any attacks on House incumbents, even if the optics of that meeting were awkward.
“There’s this sort of power dynamic where you could say Stivers went over there to kiss Bannon’s ring,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Stivers and Rogers met with Bannon at his Washington townhouse, which also serve as the headquarters for Breitbart. (The meeting was first reported by Politico.)
But Kondik said Stivers and the NRCC can't afford to ignore the Bannon wing of the Republican Party, which is focused on a nationalist, populist agenda that runs counter to many of the GOP’s traditional pro-trade, pro-business positions.
“Whether you like Steve Bannon or not, the guy is close to the president (and) … has some influence in Republican politics,” said Kondik. “You can’t just ignore that part of the party.”
Still, any close association with Bannon poses some political risks. He has been accused of fanning racial animosity and providing a platform for white supremacist and anti-Semitic viewpoints on Breitbart. Bannon has rejected those assertions.
Gorman would not comment when asked whether Stivers had any qualms about reaching out to Bannon. He also declined to comment on whether the NRCC had reached a fundraising agreement with Bannon.
Surabian, the Bannon ally, said “both sides agreed that protecting the House majority is vital for 2018. And while we might not know today how we’re going to work together, we both agreed that we would find ways to work together to that end.”