The Right Wing

Is the Republican Party on the Brink of All Out Civil War?

The Alabama primary could be a sign of things to come.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

Looking out over a packed Alabama barn, Steve Bannon paced the stage and declared: “I come to you unshaven, unkempt, in this old bomber jacket, just like I was on the campaign.” What happened 24 hours later left some asking, or perhaps dreading: could this be the new face of the Republican party?

Bannon delivered invective about Mitch McConnell, deriding the Senate majority leader as part of a political class that is “the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in the country”, and rallied the crowd at an election eve rally for Roy Moore’s insurgent campaign.

The next day, Moore – a conservative jurist who had waved his gun at a campaign rally and arrived on horseback to cast his vote – won the Republican special election primary against Luther Strange, an incumbent backed to the tune of millions of dollars by McConnell, the National Rifle Association, the Chamber of Commerce – and Donald Trump himself.

It was a defeat for Trump, who for once had allowed his head to rule his heart, but not for Trumpism, of which Moore is a worthy avatar. It was equally a coup for Bannon, seldom heard in public during his spell as Trump’s campaign manager and White House chief strategist, but now startlingly transformed into a firebrand speechmaker armed with a rightwing website, Breitbart News, against the Republican establishment.

Kurt Bardella, a former media consultant for Breitbart, said: “It was very important to Steve to show that he’s more than one-trick pony. After Steve left the White House, Alabama was his first visible show and he wanted to win this one to show that he is just as strong, if not stronger, than he was before and that he will continue to be an influential force during the Trump presidency and beyond.”

Alabama was also the opening salvo in a potential Republican civil war in the 2018 midterm elections as the party continues to grapple with the rise of Trump and the lasting political consequences. Republicans have been unable to leverage Trump’s shock victory last year for legislative success.

With terrible timing this week, their failure to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law may now be complete. Senators Bill Cassidy and Lindsey Graham’s last-ditch attempt did not make it to the floor when it became clear the votes were not there. This was only likely to fuel anger and feed the perception that Republican elites are do-nothings, ripe for a shakeup from an army of mini-Trumps.

Already Bannon is touring the country and meeting with candidates who will carry forward such an agenda. He told the Bloomberg agency: “The populist-nationalist movement proved in Alabama that a candidate with the right ideas and a grassroots organization can win big. Now, our focus is on recruiting candidates to take over the Republican party.”

The election eve rally in Alabama was a reunion of sorts of those in Bannon’s political orbit. Two potential candidates, Chris McDaniel of Mississippi and Mark Green of Tennessee, attended along with Paul Nehlen, a primary challenger last year to the House speaker, Paul Ryan, whose campaign was heavily promoted by Breitbart.

McDaniel described Moore’s win as “incredibly inspiring” for his own challenge to Senator Roger Wicker in 2018. “We know Mitch McConnell was rejected tonight and Roger Wicker is just another part of Mitch McConnell’s leadership apparatus,” McDaniel told the Associated Press.

“We supported Donald Trump because he was an agent of change, and he’s still an agent of change. In this instance, he must have been given bad advice to retain this particular swamp creature.”

On Thursday, Bannon spent two hours with Tom Tancredo, who worked on Nehlan’s behalf and is considering a run for Colorado governor next year. Tancredo, a former congressman, told the Guardian: “He was encouraged by what happened in Alabama and was certainly hoping he can replicate it.

“He’s trying to establish an awareness of the fact the Republican party should be standing for the values he and others have tried to articulate over the years. It’s a hugely difficult undertaking when you consider the power of the establishment and the swamp. He just kept reiterating: ‘I need to try to save the country.’”

Asked about the prospect of a Republican civil war, Tancredo replied: “A good philosophic blood letting is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Bannon is magnifying a trend already evident in the Tea Party, the rise of Trump and a wave of anti-establishment anger. In June Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was given a scare by the populist Corey Stewart in the party’s gubernatorial primary in Virginia. He eventually won, but by a surprisingly narrow margin that rattled the Republican establishment.

Bill Kristol, editor at large of the conservative Weekly Standard, said: “Even if Steve Bannon did nothing, the Trumpy candidates would emerge. There are plenty of activists, state legislators and others around the country who’ll look at Alabama – and the near success of Stewart against Gillespie in Virginia – and decide to take a shot. So it will be all-out civil war – and to some degree out of the control of the self-appointed generals on either side.”

Once seen as a master strategist, McConnell is struggling to capitalise on his narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate. After the healthcare debacle, he must now try to thread the needle on tax reform, the budget, immigration and the credit limit.

Bardella said Bannon had helped villainise McConnell, making him a toxic symbol of the Republican establishment and an albatross around the necks of vulnerable Republicans such as Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada. A seat in Tennessee following Senator Bob Corker’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in 2018 could also be a target.

“Every dollar that is spent on a candidate by Mitch McConnell and the Republican party is a dollar spent against them,” Bardella added. “And that’s because it plays right into the theme that they’re bought and paid for by the establishment.”

Among the “establishment” donors likely to oppose Bannon in a series of running battles are the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Bannon himself has admitted there is not “a deep bench” of viable candidates to represent his agenda.

But he can expect at least tacit backing from Trump, who was said to be furious about having backed the wrong horse in Alabama: the president even deleted three tweets that endorsed Strange. Bannon also has powerful benefactors in the shape of the billionaire hedge fund investor Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer. The New York Times reported that Bannon and Robert Mercer began working out a rough outline for a “shadow party” that would advance Trump’s nationalist agenda during a five-hour meeting last month at the family’s Long Island estate.

Bannon has also been consulting with Henry Kissinger and other foreign policy veterans, Bloomberg reported, and is preparing make the threat posed by China a central cause. “If we don’t get our situation sorted with China, we’ll be destroyed economically,” he said.

Rick Tyler, a political analyst and former campaign spokesman for the Texas senator Ted Cruz, said: “Roy Moore has demonstrated that the establishment and all its money can be beaten. You can only spend so much money in Alabama before it becomes irritating: you can only stuff so much in people’s mailboxes or run so many ads on TV.

“The floodgates are open. You’ll see a lot of this, one after another, and Steve Bannon’s going to be at the centre of it. He’s one for one. It’ll be a civil war; it has been for quite some time.”

Republican memories are still raw from 2014, when the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, was beaten in a primary contest by Dave Brat, a little-known professor backed by the Tea Party. But Bannon could make the establishment versus Tea Party battle look like a mere skirmish.

Andrew Surabian, a political strategist who worked under Bannon at the White House, told USA Today: “Bannon is plotting a strategy to launch an all-out assault on the Republican establishment. I think it’s fair to say that if you’re tied to Mitch McConnell, any of his henchmen in the consulting class, or were a Never-Trumper during the campaign, you’re not safe from a primary challenge.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Gambino and Ben Jacobs

David Smith is the Guardian's Washington correspondent.

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