Steve Bannon struggles to field insurgent GOP challengers

February 14, 2018 GMT

Steve Bannon’s promised political army is crumbling, with the cadre of candidates he has vowed to field to capture Republican-held Senate seats yet to materialize.

One potential recruit in Mississippi has put his Senate decision on hold, and a Bannon-backed candidate in Arizona has distanced herself from him after his relationship with the White House turned sour this year.

Although some of the former Trump political guru’s preferred candidates are sticking by him in Nevada and Virginia races, he has struggled to find anyone to mount an insurgent challenge in other Senate races particularly after his hand-picked candidate, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, lost a critical special election in Alabama in December.

“There seems to be an erosion in the once-rising populist tide,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican Party strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “The air has since come out of the balloon since the embarrassing loss in Alabama and since Bannon’s departed the national stage after Trump took him to the woodshed.”

Mr. Bannon, who gave up his leadership position at Breitbart.com after his falling-out with Mr. Trump, did not respond to an email seeking comment about his political plans, including reports that he told friends he would consider running for president if Mr. Trump resigned or was impeached.

The contours of the political landscape have changed dramatically since last fall, when the momentum appeared to be behind the Bannon-led purge, particularly after Mr. Moore won the Republican primary for Senate. About the same time, two top Republican targets for Mr. Bannon, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, said they would not seek re-election.

Mr. Bannon said he would try to field challengers in every Republican-held seat save for Texas, where Sen. Ted Cruz is running for re-election.

Top targets were seats in Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee. Mr. Bannon was looking for recruits who would pledge to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell as the Republican floor leader.

He threw his support behind Rep. Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee but struggled to find candidates to back in Wyoming and Utah. Recruits in other races have rushed to distance themselves from him.

One of them is Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who inspired Mr. Bannon when he nearly knocked off Sen. Thad Cochran in the 2014 Republican primary and who Mr. Bannon publicly encouraged to challenge Sen. Roger F. Wicker in the Republican primary this year.

“I am not a Bannon candidate,” Mr. McDaniel told The Washington Times this week. “I was running against Sen. Cochran attempting to change Washington well before Steve Bannon came on the scene, well before Trump came on the scene.”

Mr. McDaniel met with Mr. Bannon in September to talk about his next steps. He has the support of a super PAC called Remember Mississippi, which has raised over $1 million and is named for his near defeat of Mr. Cochran.

Mr. McDaniel had been considering the Wicker race or a run at state lieutenant governor, and said last year that he would make a decision in January.

But after Mr. Moore lost the election and Mr. Bannon was heavily quoted in an anti-Trump book this year, Mr. McDaniel took a step back.

He said he is waiting for a moment of clarity and might wait for Mr. Cochran’s seat to become vacant, either in the 2020 election or earlier if the ailing senator retires.

“It is a matter of guesswork and speculation, but I will say this: The idea of running in 2020 for that seat is very appealing to me,” Mr. McDaniel told The Times.

He said he would welcome a contest this year as well. “If Sen. Cochran were to step down, I would feel strong running against whoever is the appointee.”

Mr. Trump’s defenestration of Mr. Bannon the president called his former adviser “sloppy Steve” after the book was released also reverberated in Arizona, where former state Sen. Kelli Ward had Mr. Bannon speak at her kickoff rally last year.

At the time, Mr. Bannon predicted that Washington would “reap the whirlwind” of his anti-establishment army, including Ms. Ward.

But after Mr. Bannon’s fall, Ms. Ward deserted the army and insisted that she never “actually really got a full endorsement” from him.

Ms. Ward is battling Rep. Martha McSally and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the Republican primary for Arizona’s open Senate seat, and the Bannon fiasco appears to have taken a toll.

Ms. Ward led the race in polling last year but slid to third place in January after Mr. Arpaio’s entry and Mr. Bannon’s split from Mr. Trump.

In the House, meanwhile, former New York Rep. Michael Grimm, who is trying to regain his seat, had aligned with Mr. Bannon but quickly distanced himself after the Trump separation.

Other Bannon army troops, though, have been more loyal. Danny Tarkanian, who is running to unseat Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, and Corey Stewart, who is running to unseat Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, remain on board the insurgency.

“Like any movement, you are going to have your ups and your downs,” said Mr. Stewart, insisting he has not intention of turning against Mr. Bannon. “If you pile on somebody when they are down, it says more about you than it does about them.

“I believe in loyalty. I respect him,” Mr. Stewart said. “I think he is a political genius, and I’m confident as the Trump movement moves forward Steve Bannon is going to be an integral part of it.”

Richard Hernandez, a spokesman for Mr. Tarkanian, said, “This is the media and the establishment attempting to recycle a dead story in an attempt to distract and divide those of us who truly support the president.”

Noel Fritsch, a Republican Party consultant, said the talk of Mr. Bannon’s demise is exaggerated. He expects the Trump feud to blow over and Mr. Bannon to regain his influence.

“I think that there is no difference in the ‘America First’ movement that Bannon sees or Trump sees it is the same movement,” Mr. Fritsch said. “I think sometimes brothers in arms get into dust-ups and that is all that was, and I know that Bannon wants what is best for President Trump, and I would say that Trump knows that as well.”