Why Steve Bannon wants to get rid of these five senators.

Steve Bannon Is Turning His Personal Grudges Into Primary Challenges

Steve Bannon Is Turning His Personal Grudges Into Primary Challenges

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 11 2017 7:18 PM

What Steve Bannon Is Up To

He isn’t targeting GOP incumbents to defend Trump’s honor. He’s doing it for himself.

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon attends a swearing-in ceremony for Justice Neil Gorsuch in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 10.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Grandiose former White House chief strategist, Breitbart leader, and chaos Muppet Steve Bannon will use his connections and influence to challenge five incumbent GOP senators, Politico reports. It is part of his “war” against the Republican establishment, members of which will “be held accountable if they do not support the President of the United States,” as he told 60 Minutes during his interview Sunday night. But a lack of support for Trump is not what binds the five together.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

Some of the senators Bannon is targeting have had moments of rhetorical disloyalty to the president. Atop Bannon’s list are Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, the two most endangered Senate Republican incumbents this fall. Bannon is supporting their challengers, Dr. Kelli Ward and Danny Tarkanian, respectively. If the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee were to create, in a test tube, beatable candidates in battleground states, they would end up with Ward and Tarkanian. And yet Bannon and his allies, most notably right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, will support them. The supposed reason? Flake, in between voting for anything that Donald Trump wants, sometimes criticizes Trump’s tone. And Heller briefly flirted with voting against repealing Obamacare, but then voted for it.

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Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, similarly, is with the president on most if not all major votes and was close enough to the president to merit serious consideration for the secretary of state post. He did, however, tell reporters following Trump’s botched Charlottesville response that “the president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”

Trump does want Flake gone. But does Bannon care that Flake has criticized Trump’s tone? Does Bannon really care about the minor fleeting moments of displeasure Trump has had with Heller or Corker? It might be that Bannon, an immigration hawk (to put it gently), is trying to exact revenge against Flake, Heller, and Corker for supporting the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that included “amnesty.”

The ruse is further revealed with the other two targets on Bannon’s list, with whom Trump has zero evident problem.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker is a nice Southern gentleman who, as far as I can tell, has never said a cross word against the president or challenged him in anything approaching a meaningful way. But he’s on the list. The reason, I suspect, is because Bannon and Breitbart are close to Chris McDaniel, the far-right candidate who challenged (and very nearly defeated) Mississippi’s other senator, Thad Cochran, in 2014 and wants another shot at taking out a reliable establishment vote.

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The most ridiculous and revealing member of the group, though, is Alabama Sen. Luther Strange. Strange’s special election campaign has been devoted almost exclusively to the worship of Donald Trump. Trump, in turn, has endorsed him. That’s right: Bannon, self-imagined guardian of the president’s image, is joining the crusade against the Trump agenda item of electing Luther Strange.

A clue as to why is buried in the Politico piece: “A Strange loss would be an embarrassment for McConnell and open the floodgates for other GOP primary challenges, Bannon has argued,” Politico reports, noting that Bannon met just last week in Washington with Strange’s primary runoff opponent, Roy Moore. It would be an embarrassment for McConnell—and will be, if recent polling is correct. It will also be an embarrassment for Trump, which is why Trump has been keeping his distance of late. But just as many Republicans in Trump’s base seemed OK with Trump joining the Democrats in the debt deal simply because that was sticking it to House Speaker Paul Ryan, maybe Bannon is OK hurting a Trump-endorsed candidate if it hurts McConnell and the establishment more.

Trump may want some of the senators Bannon is targeting gone, but he doesn’t care about others. Trump may hate Jeff Flake, but there’s a not-insignificant chance that he has no idea there’s a United States senator named Roger Wicker. The only thing linking these targets, then, is not disloyalty to the president and his agenda, but to some set of peeves Bannon himself holds. He’s doing it for himself.

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