In the wide world of politics, there are two different types of campaign operatives: strategists and tacticians. The best-known figures in campaigns are big-picture strategists who come up with an overarching vision for a candidate. They’re complemented by the numerous tacticians who implement that strategy through messaging, targeting, and fundraising. David Axelrod was the forward-thinking strategist who branded Barack Obama as the candidate of hope and change, while David Plouffe was the tactician who executed that vision to perfection. Karl Rove was the engineer behind George W. Bush’s political juggernaut, while campaign manager Ken Mehlman played a critical nuts-and-bolts role in his winning reelection campaign.
The problem within the Trump White House is that too many people fancy themselves as mini-Machiavellis, and not enough people know how to get things done—whether it involves imposing a travel ban, passing health care legislation, or merely coordinating with appropriate agencies.
The threat by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon to go after sitting Republican senators with primary challenges is a textbook case of someone who holds a grand vision of politics but hasn’t demonstrated the ability to put tactical bite behind his bark.
To his credit, Bannon understands the grand contours of Republican politics these days better than many GOP insiders. President Trump has transformed the Republican Party into a more populist, nationalistic vehicle closer to Bannon’s worldview than to the prevailing sentiment at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Republicans are far more trusting of Trump than their congressional leadership. And anyone who’s tagged as being part of the Washington “swamp” will be on the defensive, forced to build back credibility with voters in an antiestablishment mood.
But Bannon has never shown any expertise in the nitty-gritty work of winning congressional campaigns. At Breitbart last year, he promoted numerous primary challenges to sitting members of Congress, none of which were victorious. The publication’s efforts to bruise House Speaker Paul Ryan were embarrassing; its preferred candidate lost by a whopping 68-point margin. Breitbart challenged candidates endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in three primaries (Alabama, Arizona, and Indiana) and lost badly in all three. Bannon opportunistically jumped into last month’s Alabama Senate race, taking credit for a victory in which his favored candidate (Roy Moore) had already been leading by double-digits.
Now Bannon is swinging wildly against every single Republican senator on a ballot (except Ted Cruz), even those who are popular back home and have been loyal Trump acolytes. He’s been furiously trying to recruit credible challengers, but the leading candidates he’s promoted—like Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Erik Prince in Wyoming—have loads of personal baggage. All the money from the deep-pocketed Mercer family won’t be able to make up for tactical deficiencies in the emerging operation.
Bannon has only as much influence outside of the White House as Trump allows. His ability to generate momentum behind insurgent challengers rests on the premise that the president is behind their candidacies. So it was significant that Trump tweaked his former adviser in a show of solidarity with McConnell in the Rose Garden on Monday. “Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they’re great people,” Trump said.
Trump went even further than that in private conversations with Republican congressional leaders, pledging to protect Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Deb Fischer of Nebraska from intraparty opposition, according to two GOP sources familiar with the discussions. Both senators were unusual targets for Bannon, given that they have been Trump loyalists and reliably conservative votes.
But both are on Bannon’s hit list: He is trying to recruit Prince, a former Blackwater chairman and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—to challenge Barrasso, one of the six GOP senators in party leadership. And he’s been in conversations with former Nebraska state Treasurer Shane Osborn about challenging Fischer, according to a source familiar with Bannon’s recruitment strategy, even though Osborn ran unsuccessfully as the establishment candidate in a hotly contested 2014 Senate primary.
The GOP senator at serious risk of losing a primary—Jeff Flake of Arizona—is in trouble because of his own self-inflicted war with the Republican base, not because Bannon has made a difference in the race. By writing a book slamming the president and the fecklessness of his party’s leadership, Flake’s standing immediately collapsed with GOP voters back home. He’s now in such precarious shape that Republican insiders expect him to mull retirement early next year if his numbers don’t rebound. The one thing keeping Flake afloat is that Bannon has failed to land a credible primary opponent against him. Bannon has now settled on supporting Kelli Ward, a hard-line former state senator whose personal baggage and underwhelming primary performance against Sen. John McCain make her a deeply flawed alternative.
Watching Bannon make threats against entrenched Republican senators is like watching an armchair fantasy-football player manage a professional football team. By riding shotgun during the final stretch of Trump’s campaign and serving as a White House adviser for seven months, Bannon clearly sees himself as the brains behind the Trump presidency. He’ll quickly find that beating Hillary Clinton may look like child’s play compared to toppling entrenched Republican senators with ample resources behind them.