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Bannon’s open revolt against GOP establishment sputters

August 29, 2018

Stephen K. Bannon entered the 2018 election cycle vowing to run primary challengers against nearly every Republican incumbent, looking to shake the party establishment to its core.

The establishment, however, appears to have won.

The latest blow to Mr. Bannon came Tuesday in Arizona, where former state Sen. Kelli Ward, one of his earliest recruits, fell to Rep. Martha McSally, a more establishment-minded candidate, in the battle for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.

Her loss followed similar failures by Bannon-backed candidates in Wisconsin, where his Senate pick lost in a primary earlier this month, in Nevada, where his preferred Senate candidate dropped out and is running for a lower office, and in Alabama, where Roy Moore squandered a seat long held by the GOP in a special election late last year.

Prince William Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart, meanwhile, eked out a primary win in Virginia, and Mr. Bannon did back winners in Senate GOP primaries in Tennessee, West Virginia and Montana, where the candidates were established political figures before Mr. Bannon gave them his blessing.

But political observers say in the races where Mr. Bannon tried to play kingmaker, he usually came up short.

“The problem is that the ones that Bannon tried to mold or had a hand in molding wound up failing and the ones that were the best options to begin with or well-known in their states wound up winning,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist.

Mr. O’Connell said the Trump world appears to have settled on a strategy of backing candidates they believe are best equipped to win competitive general election races and when possible get behind Trumpier candidates elsewhere.

Mr. Bannon, who was Mr. Trump’s top strategist until his ouster from the White House a year ago, did not return an email seeking comment.

Mrs. Ward’s loss is particularly stinging for Mr. Bannon, who endorsed the former Arizona state senator nearly a year ago as he announced his plans to build a “grassroots army” intent on making the party’s establishment “reap the whirlwind.”

“It is going to be their money versus your muscle,” Mr. Bannon said at the time.

Running as a diehard Trump backer, Mrs. Ward was financially outgunned by Ms. McSally, who raised more than $1 million over the closing weeks of the campaign and spent $3.3 million. That more than doubled Mrs. Ward’s financial haul.

Ms. McSally also enjoyed strong support from outside groups, while KelliPAC, a super political action committee backing Ms. Ward, saw its cash dry up.

It had spent $215,000 more than it has raised through the end of July, according to finance reports which showed the last cash infusion of $500,000 came in late June from Robert Mercer.

The hedge fund billionaire and major Trump backer cut ties with Mr. Bannon earlier this year after his public split with the president, who stayed on the sidelines in the Arizona primary race.

Ms. McSally held 53 percent of the vote to Mrs. Ward’s 28 percent. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was third with 19 percent and conservatives said the race would have been more competitive if he’d dropped out and given Mrs. Ward a cleaner battle against Ms. McSally.

Mrs. Ward also was on the defensive over the final days of the race after her campaign suggested it was fishy that Sen. John McCain family’s announced Friday he was ending medical treatment coinciding with the launch of her bus tour.

Mr. McCain died a day later, sparking an outpouring of tributes to him and leaving Mrs. Ward to apologize and blame the press for peddling a “false narrative.”

Mr. Bannon’s biggest hope now for ousting a sitting Republican will come in November, when his pick, Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel, takes on Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a special election to fill out the term of former Sen. Thad Cochran.

Mr. McDaniel first set his sights on taking out Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, another top Bannon target. But his bid got off to a rough start after Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Wicker on the eve of Mr. McDaniel’s campaign launch.

Things haven’t gotten any easier for Mr. McDaniel since he announced he was changing gears to run for Mr. Cochran’s former seat, which Mrs. Hyde-Smith was appointed to on an interim basis in March by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

Last week, Mr. Trump endorsed Mrs. Hyde Smith.

The president also endorsed incumbent Sens. Dean Heller in Nevada, helping to chase away a challenge from Bannon-backed Danny Tarkanian, who is now running for an open House seat, John Barrasso in Wyoming and Deb Fischer in Nebraska.

And Mr. Trump backed Leah Vukmir’s successful bid in Wisconsin over a Bannon-backed challenger.

The New York Times reported this month that Mr. Bannon is now trying to put his imprint on the elections through a new group called Citizens of the American Republic he is forming that is going to drive home the message that the future of Mr. Trump’s agenda is on the line in the midterm elections in an attempt to get his supporters to the polls for House Republicans.

“More than any other midterm, this is a referendum on his style and on his content, and you cannot run from that; you have to embrace it,” Mr. Bannon told the newspaper.

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