In recent weeks, Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon has been trying to hype a new initiative to run challengers against “every” incumbent Republican senator (except Ted Cruz of Texas) in 2018. It’s gotten a lot of attention in the press, but the truth is that this effort is nothing new. In fact, Bannon and an array of far-right conservative groups have been running these sorts of intra-GOP campaigns for the last several election cycles, and essentially have nothing to show for their efforts.
Mitch McConnell, the party’s Senate leader, made this point during an interview yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.” Referring to Bannon and his allies in the Senate Leadership Fund and other conservative establishment organizations, McConnell noted that candidates they’ve supported have largely failed to beat Democrats in areas that are not overwhelmingly Republican.
“In order to make policy, you have to actually win the election. The kind of people that are supported by the element that you’ve just been referring to are specialists in defeating Republican candidates in November,” McConnell said.
He didn’t name any names, but McConnell certainly could have gone down the list of crank candidates who somehow managed to win Republican primaries only to go down to defeat against Democrats in a subsequent general election: Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Missouri’s Todd Akin, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Joe Miller of Alaska and Allen West in Florida, to name but a few.
It’s easy to see why some political observers may have forgotten this in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in last year’s presidential election. (Bannon was his final campaign chair, after all.) But that triumph was ultimately predicated on the New York real estate magnate's willingness to talk like a Democrat rather than like a conventional anti-government conservative.
The evidence is clear in this regard. Trump’s promises to protect Social Security and his rants against bankers and other assorted “globalists” increased the GOP’s share of the union vote by 10 percentage points compared to 2012. Of the millions of people who voted for former president Barack Obama in that year who later voted for Trump, most seemed to believe he was a different kind of Republican. In an April survey of Obama-Trump voters conducted by Priorities USA, just 21 percent of respondents said that they believed Trump’s policies were likely to favor the wealthy. By contrast, 40 percent of these voters said that congressional Republicans would be skewed toward those with the most money.
Bannon is likely aware that a more economically populist GOP -- or at least a populist-sounding GOP -- is necessary to win elections. But so far he’s been unable to get the rest of the party, including Trump, to go along with him. As the White House began pivoting toward tax reform in his final days as Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon tried to get Republicans to raise rates on people earning more than $5 million a year. Needless to say, that advice fell on deaf ears.
Bannon’s counsel on funding ambitious infrastructure spending was also ignored by Trump and other administration officials, although the president certainly talked about it on the campaign trail. That was one of Bannon's pet projects, which he evidently saw as crucial to reversing the damaged image of the Republican brand.
"We’re going to build an entirely new political movement," Bannon boasted to the Hollywood Reporter last November after the election. "It's everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I'm the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We're just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement."
Bannon’s latest project of backing right-wing challengers to Republican senators is a shell of his former grand ambitions. Instead of trying to remake the GOP as a populist party, he’s supporting Republicans who promise not to re-elect McConnell as Senate majority leader and promise to eliminate the filibuster. As to what legislative agenda Republicans might actually pursue if they somehow accomplished those things, Bannon and Breitbart are uncharacteristically reticent.
In addition to downsizing his aspirations, Bannon also appears to be trying to make lemonade from his political lemons by taking credit for victories that were actually not his doing. As the Daily Caller’s Alex Pfeiffer noted earlier this month, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was almost certainly going win the recent Republican primary because his rival, the appointed incumbent Luther Strange, was a weak candidate wreathed in a cloud of corruption allegations.
While Bannon has tried to assign himself credit for Moore’s primary victory, talk radio and most of the far right actually backed another Republican, Rep. Mo Brooks, against both Strange and Moore. The same thing actually happened in last year's GOP presidential primaries. Breitbart and Bannon openly favored Ted Cruz over Trump for most of the campaign. As with Moore, Bannon hitched his wagons to the eventual winner only after it became clear Cruz was doomed. (That would have been about the time Cruz designated Carly Fiorina as his prospective running mate, a sure sign of desperation.)
Ultimately, while the GOP as a whole is divided between its Washington wing and its media wing, the media wing itself has no actual idea what it wants. Bannon’s incoherent political program is the best evidence of this. A populist Republican Party would indeed be a powerful force against a deeply conflicted Democratic Party that is still beholden to “New Democrat” corporate donors and their political progeny. But getting there is likely to prove impossible for Bannon, not just because the GOP’s wealthy donors vehemently oppose such policies but also because most of the Breitbart executive’s supposed allies do as well.