Steve Bannon has sucked up gobs of political oxygen with his budding operation to take down establishment Republicans in next year’s elections. But his political army, and the secretive financiers backing it, so far are just loosely organized upstarts in an ecosystem dominated by well-established groups.
As Bannon, just weeks removed from being a top adviser to President Trump, jaunted across the country rounding up pro-Trump challengers to incumbent Republicans, more than 100 of the biggest Republican donors gathered at a ritzy Manhattan hotel to strategize for the 2018 elections and mingle with top elected officials, including Vice President Mike Pence.
There were maps, planning sessions, and discussions about grassroots operations, focus groups, messaging and policy, and how many millions all of this would cost.
The scene at the St. Regis in Midtown Manhattan Friday, organized by the political network affiliated with the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, was the virtual opposite of a scene the occurred a few days earlier when Bannon announced his support for ex-felon and former Rep. Michael Grimm's bid to challenge a fellow New York Republican for his old seat.
Dressed in at least two button-down shirts, Bannon put his arm around Grimm, and another Trump ally Michael Caputo tweeted a picture of the moment: "Game on. #MAGA."
As the GOP appears to be on the verge of another civil war and reports of Bannon's 2018 plans dominate headlines, the big question Republicans are still trying to figure out is: Beyond a photo op, what does Bannon's support actually mean for Grimm and several other candidates he is backing?
Asked that question directly, a close Bannon ally responded: “It’s actually still TBD.”
“Think about how long it took the Koch brothers to set up their network? It took decades. Steve's been out of the White House for two months."
The usually disheveled strategist is assembling what his far-right website Breitbart has labeled "The League of Extraordinary Candidates," and has announced lofty plans to challenge every GOP senator up for reelection, except for Sen. Ted Cruz, for not being sufficiently supportive enough of the president's agenda. Bannon has also been meeting with gubernatorial candidates and plans to engage in some House races.
In doing so, Bannon — with help of the billionaire Mercer family that funded Trump’s campaign and has backed Bannon’s projects, Breitbart included, for years — will take on well-heeled networks of Republican donors and organizations that have spent years creating the infrastructure needed to recruit and vet candidates and eventually push them to victory.
Bannon’s efforts aren’t just about 2018, say people familiar with his plans. Rather, they’re meant to be more long-term to hold together the movement that elected Trump with the help of not just the Mercers, but also support other wealthy donors from Texas and New York who have expressed interest in recent weeks.
"It will probably be something broader and something more sustainable,” said the source close to Bannon.
Although Bannon is influential with the GOP grassroots and his war against the Republican establishment could have a lasting impact on the party, the details of the network he is assembling are still being worked out. Great America PAC, an existing pro-Trump group, recently brought on a key Bannon ally, Andy Surabian, and has announced support for the same candidates Bannon has touted. The super PAC, however, is not expected to be the primary Bannon vehicle.
The Koch network’s political and policy operation, meanwhile, is revving up. The network plans to spend close to $400 million on 2018’s elections, and officials with the group said Friday that Bannon’s war isn’t going to influence their decision on whether or not they will engage in primaries. The group’s decision will likely depend on whether or not Congress passes tax reform — which the network has already spent eight figures on — with officials strongly implying they would shift resources to governor’s races or other opportunities if reform fails.
Bannon, sources say, wants to play a behind-the-scenes kingmaker role and use his connections to donors and media — his own publication Breitbart along with right-wing stars like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin — to help his preferred candidates garner support.
But how his resources will be mobilized — in the form of super PACs or nonprofits or a cluster of the two — is still under discussion.
There’s interest in building a network that resembles what the Kochs have already set up: a group of policy- and politics-focused organizations under the same umbrella. But for now, Bannon's war against the Republican establishment is a scrappy operation largely run from a Capitol Hill row house, known as Breitbart Embassy, and with blurry fault lines.
Some of the candidates Bannon has included in his group — for example, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to take on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown — have already garnered the support of much of the GOP establishment and allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Bannon has promised to fight "tooth and nail."
Mandel in particular is not quite the image of a radical: He unsuccessfully faced off against Brown for the seat in 2012, with the party’s support. Hawley, meanwhile, mingled with donors at the Koch event last week, and he’ll likely draw support from all sides of the GOP.
Bannon has said the candidates he is backing will vote McConnell out of GOP leadership, support getting rid of the legislative filibuster, and push for more border security.
Asked about Hawley’s reported meeting with Bannon, his campaign provided a statement that did not detail the discussion with Bannon, let alone say if he would commit to Bannon’s priorities.
“Attorney General Hawley appreciates the support he gets from Republicans of all stripes — and Democrats and Independents too,” said Scott Paradise, a spokesman for the campaign.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser who is now backing Bannon’s efforts, argues that backing candidates like Hawley and Mandel doesn’t take anything away from the all-out war on the Republican establishment. “You have to pick your battles,” he said. “Mandel and Hawley are rock-solid conservatives.”
“This is essentially a more fine-tuned machine than what helped propel Trump, and they’ve learned from past mistakes,” Nunberg said of Bannon’s efforts. “This is a correction of the Republican Party.”
Although the GOP establishment is taking Bannon seriously, there’s still a lot of skepticism. Bannon and Breitbart have celebrated their professed role in Roy Moore’s win in the recent Alabama Senate primary over the Trump- and McConnell-supported Sen. Luther Strange. But Republican operatives and donors argue that Moore, a longtime fixture in the state’s conservative politics, didn’t necessarily need whatever boost Bannon and Breitbart gave his campaign, and may well have won without it. And despite Trump’s surprise presidential win, establishment Republicans believe they have significant institutional and infrastructural advantage over whatever Bannon ultimately cooks up.
“Is Bannon going to find a candidate that's even credible and does he have — I don't think he has the infrastructure to vet these people,” said a major Republican donor who donates to several conservative groups. “There's a danger there. If Bannon doesn't put in that vetting, these candidates will implode in their face.
“Right now they just have money, and not from a whole lot of people,” the donor said of Bannon’s operation, adding that they in a post-2016 world, they know that “money doesn’t buy an election.”
“I’m skeptical of [Bannon’s] ability to recruit, organize, and execute across multiple states since he’s never done anything like that before,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, suggesting Bannon might be getting too much credit for what happened in Alabama. “He showed up on the Trump campaign and in Alabama after both the president and Moore had effectively already secured their party’s nomination.”
There’s also confusion among some major donors about why Bannon is so eager to primary so many Republican incumbents.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to primary an incumbent Republican simply because you’re an incumbent Republican,” said North Carolina–based donor Art Pope, who is influential within the Koch network.
Pope acknowledged that there’s frustration with the lack of legislative movement on Trump’s agenda, but added that “the way to overcome that is not to have a civil war within the Republican Party” or have “purity contests.” He said he looks at whether or not he will back primary challengers on a “case-by-case basis,” regardless of Bannon’s plans.
In the meantime, Republican challengers at all levels are trying to secure a meeting or call with Bannon, even if they’re not exactly sure on what his support will mean.
Danny Tarkanian, a perennial Republican candidate in Nevada who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller next year, said he met with Bannon the first week of September, before the scope of his prospective operation had become clear. Recounting the meeting to BuzzFeed News, Tarkanian said Bannon told him “he’s going to be behind me 100 percent” and that “Breitbart was going to be fully engaged reporting on the race.”
But beyond that, Tarkanian said, there were few specifics and no explicit promises as far as financial support. He has not spoken with Bannon directly since then, but said he’s talked to Surabian.
“He’s going to support my candidacy,” Tarkanian said. “I think that’s all I needed to know.”
Henry Gomez contributed reporting.