Alabama Is the First Battle in the War of Republican Oligarchs

Last Friday, Trump traveled to Alabama to stump for Luther Strange, who is running against Roy Moore to be the Republican nominee that will face Democrat Doug Jones in a special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat. As Steve Benen pointed out, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. The president actually talked about the fact that he might have made a mistake in backing Strange.

Oh. So the president has endorsed Strange, but he’s not sure if that was the right move; Trump is principally concerned about his own image; and if Strange loses the primary runoff, the president will enthusiastically back his rival in the general election.

Last night, on the eve of the runoff, Steve Bannon showed no such hesitation in his speech at a rally for Moore. The former White House chief strategist went out of his way to support Trump, saying “We did not come here to defy Donald Trump, we came here to praise and honor him,” which sounded creepy as hell to me. Bannon also didn’t say a word about Democrats or Doug Jones. Instead, his ire was all reserved for the Senate majority leader and those who have supported the Strange campaign.

“For Mitch McConnell and Ward Baker and Karl Rove and Steven Law — all the instruments that tried to destroy Judge Moore and his family — your day of reckoning is coming,” Bannon said, referring to the Republican Senate leader and a trio of prominent GOP strategists backing incumbent Sen. Luther Strange. “But more important, for the donors who put up the [campaign] money and the corporatists that put up the money, your day of reckoning is coming, too.”…

Bannon said mainstream Republicans behind Strange’s campaign regard Alabama voters as “a pack of morons. They think you’re nothing but rubes. They have no interest at all in what you have to say, what you have to think or what you want to do. And tomorrow, you’re gonna get an opportunity to tell them what you think of the elites who run this country!”…

“Mitch McConnell and his permanent political class is the most corrupt, incompetent group of individuals in this country!” Bannon said to loud applause.

While Bannon hit all of his regular so-called “populist” memes, this Republican primary is actually the opening battle in the war between the oligarchs who want to control the GOP.

As Republican leaders fret over a possible loss of control of the Senate due to Bannon’s actions, they fail to notice that Bannon is not playing a short-term game for GOP majorities in Congress. Bannon’s game is one for control of the Republican Party writ large.

It’s clear that Mercer has no small amount of envy for the Koch brothers, the billionaire siblings whose will has largely shaped the GOP agenda as the party became ever more dependent on the political infrastructure built by the Kochs and the donor network they have cultivated over the course of decades. No longer insurgents, the Kochs and their political beneficiaries have become part of the GOP establishment…

Bannon and his patron Mercer, it seems, are willing to take their chances on the possible loss of the GOP’s narrow Senate majority if the gambit places Mercer in the kingmaker’s seat, supplanting the Koch brothers in that role.

On one side of this war is Mitch McConnell, who rose to power by unleashing the corrupting influence of big money in politics, alongside the Koch brothers, who have made the Republican Party a wholly own subsidiary of their own interests. On the other side is Steve Bannon and his billionaire backer Robert Mercer.

For those of us watching the Alabama race from the outside, it doesn’t appear that there is much of a difference between Strange and Moore—except that the latter is sure to exploit the culture wars and the politics of resentment that fuels them. What is really at stake in this primary today is the question of who gets control of the Republican Party.

Bannon was strategic in deciding to launch his opening battle in the deeply red state of Alabama, where Moore currently leads by double digits against Strange. Everything indicates that later tonight he will be able to declare victory against the corrupt and incompetent Mitch McConnell.

But what comes next? It is hard to imagine any Democrat winning a statewide race in Alabama, although the latest poll showed Jones trailing Moore by only 3.5 percentage points. Here is how Republican strategist Evan Siegfried put it:

“If Roy Moore can pull this off, it gives momentum and enthusiasm to that Bannon wing of the party, and it will embolden them to go after more and more and target people that they might not even be considering targeting right now,” Siegfried said.

Bannon has already announced support for Danny Tarkanian in his primary battle against Dean Heller in Nevada, as well as Kelli Ward, who is challenging Jeff Flake in Arizona. Wins there by Republican fringe candidates could set up opportunities for Democratic pick-ups in those states. But remember, as Adele Stan pointed out, Bannon and Mercer are willing to lose congressional majorities in the long-term battle to take over the Republican Party. That effort gets underway in Alabama today.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.