WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon and other Trump-aligned conservatives are feeling empowered by Roy Moore's Senate primary win in Alabama, upsetting the White House's favored candidate. And now they’re planning to try it again in other GOP races.
Flush with victory, Bannon and his Breitbart news outlet as well as other spinoff groups— those who want to fight the "establishment GOP" — plan to dig up dirt on other GOP incumbents who they feel might betray Trump's agenda, and try to replace them in 2018 Senate races.
“Bannon is plotting a strategy to launch an all-out-assault on the Republican establishment,” said Andrew Surabian, a political strategist who worked under Bannon at the White House and now is a senior adviser to a pro-Trump advocacy group. “I think it’s fair to say that if you’re tied to (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, any of his henchmen in the consulting class or were a Never-Trumper during the campaign, you're not safe from a primary challenge."
On their list: Republican senators in Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, and an now open seat in Tennessee following Sen. Bob Corker's announcement that he would not seek re-election in 2018. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller are considered the two most vulnerable Republican candidates. Flake, in particular, has become a target because of his strong criticism of the president.
Bannon was a senior adviser to President Trump, but left in August and went back to lead Breitbart, an ultra-conservative news website.
Breitbart staff see themselves as soldiers in a battle between the political class and average Americans and is ready to deploy their troops to dig up any dirt on their opponents, according to someone who works closely with Bannon, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe their aims. The person singled out Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker as a target.
Anti-establishment favorite Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, an insurgent candidate who ran unsuccessfully to unseat Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, is considering running against Wicker.
Wicker’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Bannon is also looking for anti-establishment Republican candidates to run for Senate in both Utah and Nebraska. Both states are represented by Republicans in the Senate.
Eric Beach, co-chairman of the Great America Alliance, an advocacy group that supports Trump’s agenda, told USA TODAY his organization spent “close to $200,000” to bolster Moore’s campaign. Beach is still solidifying their list but looking closely at putting money into races in Arizona, Tennessee and Nevada.
"We think that the candidate who has the Trump coalition behind him or her will generate more on-the-ground activity and you know better polling in the general election against the either incumbent or whoever it might be,” Beach said.
“What Alabama shows, the frustration against what I would call the establishment slow-pace of implementing the Trump agenda," said Brett Doster, who works as a campaign strategist for Moore. "There is that frustration across the country and it will enable these (conservative) leaders to continue to have good results in other states."
Moore, a former Alabama chief justice who was suspended from the job twice, won the Republican Senate primary last Tuesday by 12 percentage points. He was running against Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat after Jeff Sessions was made attorney general. Strange had the backing of President Trump and the majority leader.
Even though Trump backed his opponent, Moore ran on a pro-Trump platform and Alabama voters said that Trump’s support made little difference in their decision.
“One of the fundamental problems in Congress is that there aren’t enough Republicans who actually believe what the president believes on key issues like trade, immigration and foreign policy,” Surabian said. “Steve’s goal is to elect Republicans who don't just pretend to agree with President Trump on those core issues and will have his back and not Mitch McConnell's.”
One Republican who passes the pro-Trump test is North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. Meadows endorsed Moore and recorded a robocall for him. “The D.C. establishment is working overtime to keep Judge Moore out of the Senate because he’ll put principle over politics,” Meadows says on the call.
Meadows’ deputy chief of staff, Wayne King, took time off and went down to Alabama to work at the high levels of Moore’s campaign in the final week.
King was pictured with Breitbart's Matt Boyle, Moore, Bannon, Surabian and Bannon ally Dan Fleutte after Moore's win Tuesday.
When USA TODAY asked Meadows what message Moore’s victory sent to McConnell, he responded: “The message is you better start putting real bills on the president’s desk and if you don’t — excuses, or traditions of the Senate or anything else — most people could care less about it.”
“It certainly would encourage more than discourage” primaries against incumbents, Meadows said.
But it isn’t just hardline lawmakers who are unhappy with McConnell and the inability for the GOP-controlled Senate to pass campaign promises, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act.
“I think this is a referendum against McConnell, I don’t know there’s any way to slice it,” Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., told USA TODAY about the Moore victory. Walker chairs the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 conservative lawmakers that tend to be less bombastic than the Freedom Caucus. “I think we’re somewhere between the eighth and ninth inning when it comes to strikes … I think he’s been striking out for some time.”
But Walker declined to say outright whether McConnell should step down, adding that it was the job of the Senate to decide. “I’ll leave it for them to decide how much damage I feel like he is doing before they’re willing to make that decision,” he said.