When President Trump ruthlessly denounced his former chief strategist Steve Bannon this week, the political team behind Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell put out a short video tweet of him breaking into a smile.
No comment, just Senator McConnell smiling. The tweet befits the majority leader, a man of few and carefully considered words and sharp political elbows. The video’s understated emotion also conveys a reality check for mainstream Republicans who might be relishing this political earthquake.
Certainly, the Senate leader is pleased with the banishment of Mr. Bannon, who has been working to elect outsider Republicans to push “establishment” McConnell from his leadership post. Score one for Team Mitch. But Bannon’s political demise (however long it lasts), comes with a caveat for GOP leaders in Congress.
The drain-the-swamp, anti-establishment movement may have lost a general, but the army of rabble-rousers marches on – continuing to divide the GOP. That can make governing difficult and is not conducive to fighting the historic electoral backlash that often comes halfway through a president’s first term, observers say.
“I don’t think this means that grassroots conservatives will suddenly fall in love with leader McConnell,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. The president’s public repudiation of Bannon “doesn’t change the anti-establishment sentiment within part of the Republican Party.”
But Bannon's outcast status could help McConnell strategically, he says. Bannon was a mobilizer of anti-establishment voters, and that function is now greatly diminished by the president’s turning on him for his comments in the new book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” It’s significant, too, that Bannon no longer has the backing of the wealthy Mercer family.
“Steve Bannon planned to mobilize voters and this makes it difficult to do that,“ says Mr. Gonzales. “If Bannon doesn’t have the president, and he doesn’t have the money, I don’t see how that plan works.” That doesn’t preclude others, however, from stepping into that role.
Before he left for the Christmas break, McConnell cuttingly referred to Bannon’s “political genius” for “throwing away a seat in the reddest state in America.” He was speaking of the populist’s backing of Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. He lost to Democrat Doug Jones in a special Senate election last month – costing the GOP a Senate seat.
With a thin 51-to-49 Senate majority to defend, McConnell told reporters that he plans to keep backing candidates who can win general elections. That compares with 2010 and 2012, when the McConnell political machine was “passive” in the primaries, and Republicans lost four seats because of fringe candidates.
Bannon’s political demise “is a positive development for us, and we can get back to work nominating good, electable candidates who can win in the general election,” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas told reporters on Thursday.
One of those candidates would be former governor and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is expected to announce his candidacy to replace the retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. Mr. Romney is popular in Utah, and his election would be another win for McConnell. Despite his open criticisms of Trump, Romney is seen as a bridge builder. As Gonzales put it, the former nominee is not interested in coming to Washington “to create chaos.”
Key GOP goals attained
As for other GOP “establishment” wins, one could argue that President Trump – rhetoric and tweets aside (and that’s a big aside) – has finished a year of collaboration with the “swamp monsters” to reach key Republican goals in Congress: a conservative Supreme Court appointment, deregulation, a big tax cut, and the rollback of a core element of the Affordable Care Act – the individual mandate to buy health insurance.
After a very rough start with a non-politician president over the failure to repeal Obamacare, McConnell said he now goes into the new year “with a high level of confidence” in the ability to work with the White House and set priorities. He’ll get a crack at that this weekend, when he and other GOP leaders discuss the 2018 elections and agenda at Camp David with the president.
As for the elections, Gonzales says the president can help minimize expected losses if he helps turn out his core voters to support electable candidates – even if that means voting for more establishment figures.
In Nevada, a Senate race that Democrats believe they can win, Republicans are wondering where the president will come down. In photo-ops, he’s put incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller close to him – a visible sign of solidarity, despite the fact that Senator Heller was an avowed anti-Trumper. Yet Bannon has helped Heller’s primary challenger, Danny Tarkanian.
“Both [Mr.] Tarkanian and Heller are urgently seeking the president’s support, and the president really hasn’t come down on that choice,” says the former Republican governor of Nevada, Robert List. With Bannon in political exile, “this could boost Heller’s standing in the White House, compared to Tarkanian.”
On the other hand, he says, Trump is very popular with Nevada Republicans, and if he came out against Heller, that would be “horrible” for the incumbent.
Trump loyalists key to midterms for GOP
In Arizona, another state where Democrats hope they might pick up a seat, Bannon-backed candidate Kelli Ward has distanced herself from the Trump outcast. But Bannon’s new status makes no difference, says Arizona Republican consultant Constantin Querard.
“I don’t see anyone bailing on the president or on the larger struggle because Steve Bannon set himself on fire,” says Mr. Querard.
Candidates like Ms. Ward will still fight the establishment, he says, even if McConnell backs a more mainstream Republican like Arizona Rep. Martha McSally (R). The congresswoman, representing the swing district of Tucson, has not yet said whether she will run to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake – a staunch Trump critic who had been a Bannon target.
For the president, it could be very tough to align with McConnell to support incumbents or back more mainstream candidates when he embodies the anti-establishment wing of the party. He’s used to firing salvos at his own party, which Gonzales says is harmful.
Republicans who are loyal to the president must turn out in the midterms, he says. “If they don’t – because they don’t like Republicans on the Hill or think Republicans on the Hill aren’t doing enough to support the president – then Republicans will suffer significant losses.”
But if the president can convince his supporters that the Republican majority is important, and that it’s good for his agenda, “then that could help Republicans avoid a catastrophic election.”