A few observers have recently suggested Steve Bannon is overrated. Tuesday night’s results in Virginia only reinforce this view. Bannon backed Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, saying that it was his embrace of Trump policies that gave him a shot at winning (in fairness, I thought Gillespie had a real shot, too). He also raved about Jill Holtzman Vogel, the GOP’s lieutenant governor candidate. “She is just fantastic… She’s just a fire-breathing populist,” he said. They both went down in flames.
In the immediate aftermath of Gillespie’s loss, Breitbart.com (Bannon’s outlet) blared headlines calling Gillespie a “swamp creature” and part of the “establishment.”
Joel B. Pollak, senior editor-at-large at Breitbart News, wrote that it would be wrong to view this race as a repudiation of Trumpism. Instead, he writes, “It would be more accurate to point out that, once again, the Republican establishment came up short. Someone in the Gillespie campaign actually thought it would be a good idea to campaign with Condoleezza Rice — who, for all her merits, is a relic of the George W. Bush administration.”
That’s what they’re saying now. But if Gillespie had won by running the exact same campaign playbook, they would be praising him as a populist hero, and touting this as a positive referendum on Trumpism.
This gives us a clue as to how Bannon operates. He swoops in and stakes his claim. If his candidate wins, he claims credit. If his candidate loses, it’s because they never really had enough revolutionary fervor. They are then airbrushed out of the pictures. Only successes end up on the resume.
Recently, Bannon latched onto Roy Moore after it was pretty clear he would defeat Luther Strange in Alabama’s Senate primary. This gave the impression that he was some sort of kingmaker. Bannon probably also helped scare Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake into an early retirement. But while he might be good at spotting, co-opting, and even enflaming these pre-existing conditions and populist uprisings, he is not leading them.
The truth is, he doesn’t even have to. In the past, Breitbart and Bannon have backed numerous losing causes and candidates. He knows that batting .300 gets you into Cooperstown. Now, he’s working to primary every incumbent Republican senator.
Bannon doesn’t have to have a winning record to scare people into changing the way they talk or campaign—or even into retiring. And he’s not at all worried that his impact will lead to more Democrats winning.
Make no mistake, that’s going to happen. Yes, we will see more populist Bannonite Republicans elected in places like Alabama--and maybe even states like Ohio, but we will also see more and more Democrats elected in states like Virginia.
The moral of the story for Republicans is that Trumpism is toxic in diverse areas full of educated suburbanites. As these regions continue to grow (and as the areas where Trump performs well continue to shrink), Republicans will face the demographic crisis we’ve been warning about for years.
This was always going to be a challenge for Republicans, but Trump and Bannon have exacerbated the problem.
Roy Moore can win in deep-red Alabama; he can’t win in purple Virginia.