Steve Bannon lost the Republicans a safe seat, writes The Last Word columnist Robert Philpot
When the histories of Donald Trump’s presidency are written, Ray Moore’s defeat in the Alabama special election this week may come to be seen as a turning point.
Alabama was one of the most heavily pro-Trump states in the 2016 presidential election, and its former senator, attorney general Jeff Sessions, was re-elected with 97.25 per cent of the vote three years ago in a race in which the Democrats did not even compete.
On Tuesday, the politics of Alabama was turned on its head with the Democrats winning their first senate seat in the state for 25 years.
Aside from Moore himself, perhaps nobody is more responsible for Doug Jones’ victory than Steve Bannon, the hard-right nationalist who is Trump’s former chief strategist.
It was Bannon who engineered Moore’s primary election victory over the hand-picked choice of the Washington conservative establishment, senator Luther Strange (who, had he been chosen as the Republican nominee, would undoubtedly have won).
It was Bannon who, in the words of the Washington Post, ‘all but adopted Moore as the public face of his insurgent effort to topple the congressional leadership of the Republican party’.
And it was Bannon who saved Moore’s candidacy when, during the final month of the campaign, five women came forward with accounts of the judge’s alleged sexual misconduct with them as teenagers, including one who was 14 years old. As the White House wobbled, the Republican party halted fundraising efforts and its leaders in congress called upon him to stand down, Bannon redoubled his efforts on Moore’s behalf.
Bannon deployed the full weight of his Breitbart News operation and utilised his extensive influence in the wider conservative media to shore up support among Republican voters. His strategy was a simple one. As Joshua Green, a long-time Bannon watcher and author of the excellent Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency, suggested, ‘Bannon has worked harder than perhaps anyone else to sow doubt about the accusations against Moore and to push the claim that his accusers are lying.’
While many Republicans continued to keep their distance – and some, such as senator Jeff Flake, endorsed Jones – Bannon’s campaign helped to staunch the bleeding. Trump strongly endorsed Moore, the Republican National Committee turned back on the campaign’s financial lifeline and, by polling day, the race was on a knife-edge.
Thankfully, and in no small measure due to a surge in black turnout which the Republicans had tried hard to suppress, Jones emerged victorious over a man who is not only accused of preying on teenage girls, but who has showed scant respect for the rule of law, believed homosexuality should be criminalised and Muslims should not be seated in Congress, and suggested that America was better off during the time of slavery.
Perhaps most importantly, Bannon’s hopes of launching what he describes as a ‘season of war’ – a string of primary challenges against Republicans incumbents to complete the already well-advanced process of reshaping the party in Trump’s image – has suffered a set-back. The backlash among Republicans has been swift and harsh. While one Republican congressman accused Bannon of being ‘tired, inane and morally vacuous’, the conservative National Review labeled him a ‘cut-rate Svengali … who never met a disreputable political candidate he didn’t like’.
But Bannon’s tactics appears to remain of interest to some on the right here in Britain. At the start of this month – midway through his effort to save Moore’s candidacy – Bannon visited London and met with Conservative member of parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg. Despite his later attempts to distance himself, that Rees-Mogg felt his time could be well-spent in the company of a man such as Bannon speaks volumes about the would-be Tory leader.
You had one job
During last month’s New York mayoral election, the Trump family applied for postal votes. Their efforts to fulfill their civic duty did not entirely meet with success. According to a report this week in the New York Daily News, Melania did not follow the directions to sign the envelope so her vote did not count. Ivanka put her ballot in the post on election day, so it was too late. Her husband, Jared, failed to return his ballot paper at all. The president, meanwhile, got his own birthday wrong by a month.
Doing right by your country
Labour’s Wes Streeting is absolutely right. We should not underestimate the tribal pull of party politics in the House of Commons. The 11 Tory MPs who put parliamentary democracy and the country ahead of their party on Wednesday night – risking their political careers and a vicious attack from the right-wing press in the process – deserve our thanks for their courage.
Finally, thank you to the Daily Telegraph’s brilliant sketch-writer, Michael Deacon, for spotting and sharing this little gem. Addressing MPs in 2002, one prophetic speaker warned of the reasons why referendums can go badly wrong. ‘We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper, and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards.’ Wise words from the man now serving as Theresa May’s Brexit secretary, David Davis.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot