Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies rang in the new year with a week-long celebration of Steve Bannon's self-immolation.
But the festivities may prove to be short-lived.
The Republican leader still has a slate of brutal GOP primaries looming in the first half of this year that could jeopardize his party's hold on the Senate — even with Bannon out of the picture, assuming that his breakup with President Donald Trump and the wealthy Mercer family lasts.
Still, McConnell’s team believes — probably with good reason — that their job in 2018 is now significantly easier without Bannon to marshal insurgent forces against incumbent Republican senators and cost the party crucial Senate seats. That's precisely what they blame him for doing in Alabama, where the party nominated Bannon-backed Roy Moore only to watch him blow a seemingly can't-lose race.
“Taking that counter-argument out of the game here clears the path for a very clear-eyed political strategy for the year,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political strategist and former McConnell aide. “Bannon would have dramatically complicated that.”
Jennings and other McConnell allies say the party can focus on selling a still-unpopular tax law to the American public and picking up Senate seats in states President Donald Trump won in 2016. To the extent Bannon is blasting McConnell and his cohorts as corporate globalist sellouts, he'll be doing so as a much-diminished political force.
The elation inside McConnell's camp could hardly be more apparent. When McConnell assembled his staff on Wednesday for a new-year huddle, he didn’t focus on a looming government shutdown or the recently-passed tax bill — he celebrated Bannon’s self-destruction.
The president had released a statement hours earlier disavowing Bannon, stating his former aide had "not only lost his job, he lost his mind" when he was fired. McConnell gleefully told his colleagues that he had spoken with the president moments earlier and told him: “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
But it's unclear how much of a factor Bannon would've been in the country's most competitive Senate races, anyway. Several Republican vs. Republican battles will rage on without him.
In just four months, a pair of Indiana GOP congressmen will settle their months-long clash in a May 8 primary. A newly wide-open Republican field in the Ohio Senate race will be decided the same day. And other fierce primaries loom in Wisconsin, Nevada, West Virginia and elsewhere.
Bannon’s fall may deprive primary challengers of some oxygen and money. But it doesn’t change a primary environment in which any tie to Washington or McConnell can be poisonous.
“The Republican Congress has replaced President Obama as the bogeyman for conservative GOP primary voters," Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law wrote after Moore beat then-Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama's Republican primary.
Still, Josh Holmes, a top McConnell political lieutenant who has spent much of the fall and winter on the warpath against Bannon, said the president’s decision to toss Bannon aside will freshly unity the party’s efforts.
“It repairs a divide that existed only because of Steve Bannon,” he said. “The party has largely been united — House, Senate, administration — and has been executing extremely well since Bannon’s departure from the White House. One exception to that has been Bannon’s activities on the outside.”
A Bannon spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment.
The majority leader will spend the weekend with the president and Republican congressional leaders at Camp David. He will stress to the group the importance of party unity, a concept inimical to Bannon’s project to remake the GOP in his populist-nationalist image.
McConnell, according to two sources familiar with his plans, will lay out his view of what it will take for Republicans to succeed in this year's treacherous political atmosphere. Namely, a relentless focus on selling tax reform as the engine behind the booming economy.
The hope of McConnell and his allies at Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is that tax reform, along with the confirmation of conservative judges, can keep a restive GOP base from tossing two incumbents facing strong primary challenges. In Nevada, Sen. Dean Heller began airing ads in November. In Mississippi, Sen. Roger Wicker started airing spots right before Christmas. Both men face actual or expected Republican challengers.
“It’s been quite a year in Washington,” Wicker says in the ad, as he sits with his wife in front of a Christmas tree. “We’ve delivered pro-growth tax cuts, confirmed conservative judges — the most in history — and slashed billions in job-killing regulations.”
Heller is up against businessman and perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, who has won multiple GOP House primaries this decade. Wicker is likely to face state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who narrowly lost to Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014. Mainstream Republicans are taking both challengers seriously, and Bannon was set to back both Tarkanian and McDaniel.
They’ll now probably have to do without Bannon’s expansive media presence and whatever funding he would’ve been able to generate from donors.
But how much Bannon mattered in both races isn't certain. While he was hoping to set up a political group, its funding sources and staffing were up in the air. While Bannon had plans to run primary opponents against every GOP senator up for reelection except Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the Breitbart chief was unable to recruit challengers in most states.
And while the limited public polling available shows Tarkanian giving Heller a race, Wicker has a substantial lead over McDaniel.
Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a Bannon-backed candidate in Arizona, did play a role in chasing Sen. Jeff Flake into retirement. But she is likely going to face establishment-backed Rep. Martha McSally in a GOP primary, and downplayed Bannon’s role in her campaign in a statement.
"Steve Bannon is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received," Ward spokesman Zachery Henry said this week. "The daily parlor intrigue in Washington, D.C., does nothing to improve the lives of the hardworking men and women of this country."
But other GOP primaries have had little to do with Bannon. In Indiana, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, along with businessman Mike Braun, have been attacking one another since the summer. Bannon hadn’t endorsed any candidate. In Ohio, where Republican Rep. Jim Renacci might enter the Senate race following Treasurer Josh Mandel’s decision Friday to drop out, Bannon never endorsed Mandel or self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons.
In Wisconsin, Bannon had backed businessman and veteran Kevin Nicholson over state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who is beloved by grass-roots Republicans in the state. But Nicholson’s primary backers are Club for Growth and Illinois businessman Richard Uihlein, and his cash supply won’t suffer because of Bannon’s downfall.
A similar story is unfolding in Tennessee. While Bannon was supporting Rep. Marsha Blackburn, her backing from Club for Growth means she isn’t reliant on him for support. She raised $2 million in the fourth quarter, her campaign said this week, compared ith former Rep. Stephen Fincher’s $1.45 million.
The only guaranteed loser from Bannon’s blowup is Bannon himself.
“Steve Bannon’s 15 minutes should be a case study in what happens to people when they put themselves above the causes they claim to work for,” Holmes said.