Steve Bannon is standing by Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate nominee he backed in the primary earlier this year, even as the rest of the party rushes to cut ties amid a growing wave of sexual misconduct allegations against the candidate.
The former White House chief strategist has not changed his plans to campaign on Moore's behalf and to back similarly provocative candidates in GOP primary races across the country next year, sources close to Bannon say.
Bannon also continues to believe Moore's denials that he pursued romantic relationships with minors, and is "still with him" despite the collapse of Moore's support nationally, a person close to Bannon told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.
Those sources disputed a story by The Daily Beast that described Bannon as having “second thoughts about Roy Moore.”
“[The] Daily Beast clearly didn’t talk to anyone who knows Steve,” said one Bannon ally.
Bannon is slated to appear at a rally for Moore on Dec. 5, one week before Alabama voters will head to the ballot box to determine the fate of the former state supreme court justice.
But Bannon's position is threatening to undermine his credibility as the leader of an insurgent movement heading into 2018. He cast Moore's primary victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange as the start of “a revolution” for America’s anti-establishment crowd, and is hoping to replicate that in other states around the country.
Those plans are at risk now, however, after one woman accused Moore of pursuing a sexual relationship with her when she was just 14, and three others said he sought to date them when they were in high school and he was in his 30s. A fifth woman, who came forward Monday, claimed Moore sexually abused her when she was barely of legal driving age.
The mounting allegations have devastated Moore’s campaign: He was cut off from the Republican National Committee on Tuesday, days after being ditched by the party's Senate campaign arm. Numerous senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have called for his withdrawal from the race. And one of his greatest allies in the media, Fox News host Sean Hannity, gave him “24 hours” late Tuesday to disprove his accusers with “satisfactory” evidence or “get out of this race.”
Bannon has stood by Moore through it all, leading a revolt unlike that which he probably imagined as he celebrated the former judge’s triumph on Sept. 26. Some Republicans are saying Bannon's unwillingness to ditch Moore will likely hurt him among many Republicans.
“Whatever credibility Bannon originally had is disappearing rapidly,” a longtime GOP operative told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday morning, hours after a source close to Bannon said “Steve is behind [Moore] 1,000 percent.”
“Everybody last Friday was talking about tax reform and Steve Bannon had his minions on TV talking about what constitutes the age of consent between a teenager and an adult,” the GOP operative said of the bad optics Bannon is fighting.
Brian McGuire, who left his role as McConnell’s chief of staff earlier this year, said the scandal surrounding Moore is no surprise considering the fiery Senate candidate was propped up by Bannon.
“This is a very good example of what happens when you entrust your candidate selection to someone like Steve Bannon,” McGuire told the Washington Examiner. “To candidates who flirted with him and donors who recently met with him, it should be clear now that he doesn’t have the party’s interest at heart and he doesn’t support the president’s agenda.”
A second source close to Bannon said the former Trump aide would have been more inclined to support Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., over Moore in the September primary contest, but noted that he was still working in the West Wing at that time and McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund was pouring millions of dollars into the primary to pummel Brooks on Strange’s behalf.
But now, Moore is at risk of losing the election in deep red Alabama, or getting kicked out of the Senate as soon as he wins. McConnell confirmed this week that Senate Republicans would likely file an ethics complaint against Moore if he defeats Democratic candidate Doug Jones next month, with the goal of blocking him from serving on Capitol Hill.
“If he were to be sworn in, he would immediately be in a process before the Senate Ethics Committee,” the Kentucky Republican told business CEOs at an event in Washington on Tuesday. “He would be sworn in and be asked to testify under oath, and it would be a rather unusual beginning, probably an unprecedented beginning.”
McConnell has also consulted with White House officials about a slew of other options that could be pursued ahead of the special election next month, including convincing Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Strange to launch a write-in bid. However, both men have signaled their disinterest in that option.
Bannon allies said expelling Moore from the Senate or recruiting a write-in candidate would further energize the Trump confidant and provide a clear-cut example of establishment forces disregarding the will of the people. Moore has already criticized McConnell for “attempting to subvert the will of Alabamians.”
But some Republicans aren't so sure Bannon would win that battle.
“If Steve Bannon thinks that expelling someone accused of molesting teenagers from the Senate emboldens him, we’re happy to have that fight,” said Chris Pack, communications director for the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-tied outside group.
Despite Moore’s repeated denials of the allegations against him, some of his own supporters were taken by surprise.
While McConnell and his allies have long argued that the conservative Alabama candidate was always too controversial for a general election, people close to Bannon have said Moore was well positioned to win before the five women stepped forward with their claims of unwanted romantic pursuit and sexual abuse.
One source close to Bannon said his camp did not view the collapse of Moore’s campaign as a reflection of their vetting process because other campaigns had likely invested heavily in digging up dirt on Moore during the GOP primary, and had also failed to find the scandal.
"There are things that no one can vet,” the source said of Moore’s past.
Republican sources in Alabama confirmed Bannon’s suspicions to the Washington Examiner on Tuesday, noting that Strange’s campaign discovered that Moore “liked to chase women around the courthouse” early on in their primary race but failed to dig up any concrete examples of sexual misconduct despite “a lot of research.”
Bannon allies said he is unlikely to change his candidate selection tactics in future races due to the unique combination of factors that led to Moore’s implosion, which he said were unlikely to repeat themselves.
Still, Bannon’s effort to recruit viable anti-establishment candidates for Republican primaries next year could become more difficult as more GOP donors decide to spend their money elsewhere.
The Breitbart executive was publicly dismissed Tuesday by billionaire mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, whose spokesman said he would be “supporting Mitch McConnell 100 percent” in the 2018 midterm elections. That rejection came days after Trump supporter Robert Mercer announced plans to sell his stake in Breitbart and repudiated reports that “my politics marches in lockstep with Steve Bannon’s.”
“Those are two big figures in Republican donor circles and Mercer, of course, is someone who has been supportive of Bannon and his projects in the past,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“It seems like donor forces are really on the McConnell side after this, and I think that Bannon has made a big miscalculations here because he tried to take credit for Moore and now he’s tied to him and he’s tied Breitbart to him, just as Moore is going through a giant meltdown," Kondik added.
But even as he faces donor issues over the Moore scandal, Bannon’s credibility has yet to decline in the eyes of insurgent candidates he has been cultivating.
Nevada businessman and perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, for example, closely echoed Bannon’s defense of Moore — that establishment Republicans are “trying to destroy a man’s life” — in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
“I grew up watching people lie about my father (legendary University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian) and hit him with false accusations in an effort to destroy his reputation and ruin his career,” Tarkanian said. “As a result, I’m deeply troubled by the character assassination campaign now being directed at Judge Roy Moore in the Alabama U.S. Senate race.”