Congressional Republicans Should Be Afraid of Steve Bannon

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 14, 2017 · 2:47 PM EST

It’s no secret that Steve Bannon wants to oversee the demise of the mainstream media, but President Donald Trump’s senior adviser probably wouldn’t mind incapacitating the Republican Party in order to remake it into his own image as well. 

Bannon (and Trump, for that matter) referred to the media, as “the opposition party.” That’s a cause congressional Republicans could get behind, but a series of emails last year could foreshadow a big problem for GOP incumbents, particularly those who disagree with the president or his administration.

““The days of [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell picking Republican nominees in Senate races are over,” Bannon told donors in closed-door meetings, according to a Buzzfeed story by Alexis Levinson and Tarini Parti.

As long as Bannon is talking about a “new political order,” there is the potential for the new administration to get involved against GOP lawmakers, whether by sowing seeds of discontent through friendly media outlets or through the president tweeting endorsements for challengers. The threat of a primary could cause members to pledge allegiance to Trump over House leadership when the two sides are at odds.

Seven months ago, I started receiving a string of emails that were consistently critical of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. Based on the subject lines, content and tone, I thought they were press releases from Ryan’s challenger, Paul Nehlen.

But the emails didn’t originate from the Nehlen campaign, and instead, were from Breitbart News, where and when Bannon was executive chairman. And they were all written by a single author: Julia Hahn. Her final story before the primary included a full six-and-a-half minute video clip of Nehlen’s closing argument, along with a full transcript.

Ryan won the August GOP primary handily, 84 percent to 16 percent, in spite of Nehlen receiving far more attention than his support in Wisconsin’s 1st District warranted. It didn’t hurt to have a media outlet dedicated to his cause.

Trump created a stir recently when the White House announced that Hahn would be joining the administration as a special assistant to the president. It seems unlikely that Bannon and Hahn, a former press secretary for Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, will permanently set aside their disdain for establishment Republicans. Hahn has even clashed with conservative lawmakers, including Idaho Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, in the past.

After Robert Costa of The Washington Post wrote about concerns among Ryan’s allies on the Hill over Hahn’s hiring, Breitbart News highlighted the story on its own site: PAUL RYAN ALLIES TERRIFIED BY 25-YEAR-OLD JULIA HAHN.

At least one veteran GOP consultant believes that Bannon is distracted by the “bigger thrill” of running the country, compared to taking on Republican incumbents, and that attacks from Democrats and the media will unite the GOP.

Ryan hasn’t been the only target of Bannon and friends.

Before the November election, Breitbart News was already publishing articles critical of GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Trump critic: SEN. JEFF FLAKE GETS 2018 PRIMARY CHALLENGE FOR OPPOSING DONALD TRUMP (Oct. 28). It’s no surprise that former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward released an exclusive statement to Breitbart on the day she announced her campaign, describing Flake as a “big government globalist.”

Trump isn’t above getting involved in local fights. Just days before he was sworn into office, he took time away from setting up the executive branch to personally call members of the Ohio Republican central committee in order to oust a party chairman who criticized him during the campaign. The president toggles between being reactionary and acting on long-standing grudges.

Any potential aggression by the Trump White House toward a Republican critic isn’t necessarily an isolated incident. If Bannon manufactures a primary loss for a GOP incumbent, the winning challenger has the potential to jeopardize a previously safe seat if he or she is out of the political mainstream.

Of course, most GOPers would rather have a Republican in office than a Democrat. But the smart Republicans know that Trump is more of a populist who used the Republican Party to get to power, rather than being a president with a great love for the Grand Old Party.

Most GOP strategists are dismissive of a large-scale revolt by Trump and Bannon against the establishment GOP either because of the success the so-called Establishment has had in primaries in the last two cycles, or because they believe Trump’s popularity among some Republicans is not transferable, similar to the dynamic with President Barack Obama. 

But just because Obama’s infrastructure didn’t work beyond his own circle, doesn’t mean Trump and Bannon won’t create headaches for the GOP.