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The Trump-Bannon feud is already upending the midterm elections

Bannonite candidates have to pick between the Breitbart machine and the president.

Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist and chairman of Breitbart News, pauses while speaking during a discussion on countering violent extremism, CREDIT: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist and chairman of Breitbart News, pauses while speaking during a discussion on countering violent extremism, CREDIT: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The escalating feud between President Donald Trump and Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon — formerly the White House chief strategist — is quickly muddying the waters of several 2018 races. Bannon has endorsed a handful of congressional candidates who may be forced to pick sides as Trump and Bannon snipe at each other publicly.

The trouble began early Wednesday morning when The Guardian and New York Magazine published excerpts from the upcoming book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff, in which Bannon reportedly says that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton was “treasonous.” Bannon added, “They’re going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.”

Hours later, Trump released an official statement downplaying Bannon’s role in the campaign and the administration.

“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” Trump’s statement said. “Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.”

Bannon, Trump said, doesn’t represent the Trump base and is “only in it for himself.”

Bannon left the White House in August and immediately returned to Breitbart, where he vowed to advance the Trump agenda as a private citizen. One of the main ways he planned to do so was to support mini Trumps running for Congress around the country, and Bannon’s endorsement quickly became coveted for irreverent, far-right, populist, and white nationalist candidates.

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But suddenly on Wednesday, having Bannon’s endorsement meant these mini Trumps — many of whom are running on Trump policies like building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — were being asked to choose between the Breitbart machine that could get them elected and the president they are trying to emulate.

In Arizona, Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-AZ) spokesperson sniped at Heller’s primary rival, businessman Danny Tarkanian, who is supported by Bannon, saying in a statement, “Danny Tarkanian and Steve Bannon are frauds whose only skill is losing elections and costing Republicans seats.”

Tarkanian responded in a statement later Wednesday, calling the feud a “distraction” and hitting Heller for being hesitant to back Trump during the 2016 race.

Similar fights broke out in other GOP primaries. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV), who is running for Senate in West Virginia, released a statement hitting his competitor, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is backed by Bannon. If Morrisey refused to disavow Bannon, Jenkins said, West Virginia voters would know Morrisey was, like Bannon, only in it for himself.

Jenkins — a former Democrat who switched parties — also criticized Morrisey’s support for Trump, saying, “West Virginians will recall that Morrisey pointedly declined to endorse Donald Trump until months after he won the GOP nomination — the only RNC delegate from the Mountain State to take that stance.” (Jenkins endorsed Trump just before the state’s primary, and Morrisey remained publicly neutral until around the time of the RNC convention.)

Morrisey’s campaign hit back, but refused to address Bannon specifically.

“[Morrisey] does not support these attacks on Pres. Trump and his family, and was proud to stand with Pres. Trump in ‘16 when they were both overwhelmingly elected in W.Va. and when he cast his vote for Trump in the Electoral College,” Nachama Soloveichik, a spokesperson for Morrisey said in a statement. On Twitter and in a statement to the press, Morrisey hit Jenkins, but still did not mention Bannon.

In a subsequent statement, Jenkins spokesperson Andy Sere said, “It would be quite dichotomous of Morrisey for him to claim he would be a Trump ally in the Senate, but when it comes to a top supporter like Bannon, he won’t speak up about it.”

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In Wisconsin, Republican candidate Leah Vukmir’s campaign for Senate called for Kevin Nicholson, their own Bannon-backed rival, to disavow the Breitbart head, too.

“It was incredibly disappointing to learn of these vicious attacks by Steve Bannon against the President and his family,” Vukmir campaign manager Jess Ward said in a statement. “After the Alabama debacle, and now this, any self-respecting Republican should question whether Steve Bannon has any role in building our party. Kevin Nicholson should disavow his endorsement.”

The Alabama debacle Ward mentions, of course, refers to the recent election of Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) in Alabama, who managed to pull of a shocking upset against Bannon-backed Republican Roy Moore. Bannon supported Moore in the primary, while Trump — along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — backed then-Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL). During the campaign, a number of reports emerged in which several women accused Moore of sexually abusing them, some of whom when they were teenagers. Trump repeatedly blamed Bannon for Moore’s loss, which leaves Republicans with just a single seat majority in the Senate.

The Nicholson campaign refused to address the feud between Trump and Bannon Wednesday, saying in a statement to BuzzFeed, “It is disappointing that hours after Wisconsin Republicans joined together to sign a GOP Unity Pledge, that Leah Vukmir would take this moment to attack another Republican for an endorsement she herself aggressively sought. Leah spent a great deal of time and energy seeking Steve Bannon’s endorsement and was unsuccessful. It’s easy to see why she is frustrated. Meanwhile, Kevin Nicholson has built a broad and diverse coalition of supporters and endorsers and he is focused on talking about the issues that matter most to Wisconsin voters. That’s what strong and winning campaigns do.”

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Kelli Ward’s Bannon-backed campaign for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in Arizona did address Bannon specifically, downplaying his endorsement without disavowing him.

“The most important endorsement in this race will come from the voters of Arizona,” press secretary Zachery Henry said in a statement Wednesday evening. “Steve Bannon is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received… The daily parlor intrigue in Washington D.C. does nothing to improve the lives of the hard-working men and women of this country.”

Just one candidate Bannon has backed, Michael Grimm, a felon and former Republican congressman from New York, denounced Bannon’s support following Wednesday’s news. In a statement, Grimm expressed support for Trump.

Bannon has endorsed several other Congressional candidates in Republican primaries across the country. The rest have not yet publicly responded to Wednesday’s feud.