WASHINGTON — Steve Bannon is telling people he’s not coming after mainstream Republicans in the House the way he’s targeting senators with anti-establishment disrupters in primaries. Many in the House are looking over their shoulders all the same.
“I can’t read Mr. Bannon’s mind,” said North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger, who could well be on the list.
Back atop the right-wing media organization Breitbart News, President Donald Trump’s ousted strategist is openly trying to topple Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and incumbents backing the Kentucky Republican. Bannon and his supporters say McConnell is the embodiment of an insufficiently conservative, unproductive party establishment.
The House is a different story, so far.
The 435-representative chamber is far larger than the 100-member Senate, so it would take huge sums for Bannon to reshape. It’s also where Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has steered bills erasing much of the Obama health law and cutting taxes. Conservatives such as Bannon may be able to tilt the House rightward simply by running primary candidates in open seats, rather than battling normally well-funded Republican incumbents.
When Bannon met this month with Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who heads the House GOP’s campaign organization, he told Stivers their goals are aligned.
They’re “largely on the same page to defend and expand” the party’s majority, though there “might be a race here or there” where they clash, said Andrew Surabian, a Bannon associate and adviser to the Great America Alliance, a pro-Trump political organization.
“Steve’s focus is not on incumbents in the House,” Surabian said. “If you’re not going out of your way to be a thorn in the side of the president, you probably don’t have much to worry about.”
Surabian said Bannon will headline a fundraiser next month for Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. But some GOP incumbents aren’t certain Bannon will leave them alone, and potential challengers are feeling buoyed.
“There are qualities about my candidacy he certainly would like,” Mark Harris, a former pastor set for a rematch with Pittenger in a district east of Charlotte, said of Bannon. “We’ve got to start draining the swamp.”
Harris lost in 2016 by fewer than 200 votes. He says he hasn’t talked to Bannon “as of yet.”
In New York, GOP Rep. Dan Donovan got a shot across the bow: a “Game on!” tweet by Michael Grimm, his challenger in next year’s primary, that included a photo of a smiling Grimm with Bannon. Grimm held Donovan’s Staten Island seat before serving seven months in prison for tax evasion.
House moderates, who’ve started calling themselves “governing conservatives,” seem particularly unsettled by Bannon’s crusade and anti-incumbent efforts by other conservatives groups.
“We want one unified Republican Party,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which supports more than 70 GOP moderates. “If the fight comes, we’ll be prepared.”
The Senate has 33 seats at stake next November, including eight held by Republicans. It’s also the realm of McConnell.
“It’s Mitch McConnell’s desk where the Trump agenda goes to die,” Surabian said.
Bannon’s ability to influence the House is more questionable. It would take tens of millions of dollars to sway the several dozen competitive races expected next year.
Beyond the House’s sheer size, many moderate Republicans who might be tempting Bannon targets represent suburbs where hard-right conservatives could well lose the general election. That could increase the risk of Republicans forfeiting House control — bad news for Trump’s agenda and his prospects of avoiding congressional investigations.
“You lose control of the House and you have a misery index,” former Rep. Tom Reynolds, a New York Republican who headed House GOP campaign operations, said of the consequences to Trump should Democrats take over.
Bannon would likeliest engage in open House seats in GOP strongholds in Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, or the dozen Democratic-held districts, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, that Trump carried last year. Surabian said the idea is to elect “more allies to Mark Meadows,” the North Carolina Republican who leads the hard-right House Freedom Caucus that has battled party leaders.
Bannon supporters say his backing brings activist conservatives and fundraising. Mainstream Republicans say his potency is overrated, noting that conservative groups such as the Club for Growth have targeted Republican centrists with limited success.
“There isn’t any evidence to this point that outside of his news organization, Mr. Bannon has the resources for campaigns of this magnitude,” said Brian J. Walsh, a GOP strategist.
Said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala.: “If you go into Walmart and say, ‘Hey, do you know who Steve Bannon is?’ they go, ‘Huh?'”
Another test of Bannon’s influence: Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. Six women have accused Moore of pursuing romantic relationships with them when they were teenagers and he was an assistant district attorney in his 30s. Two have accused him of assault or molestation, accusations that he has vehemently denied.
Bannon helped Moore wrest the GOP nomination from incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in September, before the allegations emerged. The seat was once considered a Republican lock, so a victory by Democrat Doug Jones could hurt Bannon’s influence.
Democrats decisively won governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey this month and gained local posts nationwide. They would capture House control by gaining 24 seats in next year’s midterm elections, which are historically tough for the party holding the White House.
Ominously, 24 House Republicans and just seven Democrats have announced so far they’re not seeking re-election.
As for incumbents Pittenger and Donovan, each stresses his loyalty to Trump.
Pittenger says he’s backed Trump on nearly all House votes. While Harris has pledged fidelity to conservative groups, Pittenger says, “I pledge allegiance to my constituents.”
Donovan, among just 20 House Republicans who opposed the House bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, says he’s known Trump for two decades.
Trump “understands the differences between New York and the rest of the country,” Donovan says.