Trump Vs. Bannon: Alabama Senate Showdown Sees GOP Factions Go to War

Steve Bannon, Trump
President Donald Trump stands alongside his chief strategist at the time, Stephen Bannon, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 18. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

For a year, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump thrived in one of the most controversial alliances in U.S. political history, as the Breitbart chief was credited with providing the intellectual ballast and strategic vision behind the real estate mogul’s astonishing journey to the White House.

Now, while they remain on the same side regarding most policy questions, the U.S. Senate race in Alabama has turned them into adversaries. 

On Saturday, Trump tweeted about attending a campaign rally for the incumbent senator, Luther Strange, a former state attorney general who has the backing of the GOP establishment. Though he announced his support for Strange ahead of the August 15 primaries, Trump had not campaigned alongside Strange.

“I will be in Huntsville, Alabama on Saturday night to support Luther Strange for Senate. ‘Big Luther’ is a great guy who gets things done!” Trump wrote.

Senior Republicans have spent weeks attempting to persuade Trump to get behind Strange’s campaign, according to Politico. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fears that a Strange loss could spark a damaging civil war in the GOP ahead of next year’s mid-term elections. Such a battle could drain Republican funds from contested Democrat seats. 

Bannon, who was ousted from the White House amid savage internal feuding in August, is throwing his weight behind Strange's opponent, Roy Moore, a controversial former judge. Bannon believes a Moore victory could act as a catalyst in his mission to defeat other establishment Senate Republicans who he believes are out to derail Trump's populist agenda. 

Among the McConnell-tied Senate incumbents Bannon is reportedly tilting against are Jeff Flake in Arizona, Dean Heller in Nevada, Bob Corker in Tennessee and Roger Wicker in Mississippi.

In Alabama, Moore seems poised for victory in the September 26 vote, having led in virtually every poll since going head-to-head with Strange.

Political observers in Alabama believe Bannon’s influence has done little to boost Moore, but his friendship with billionaire anti-establishment GOP donors such as Robert Mercer could help close the considerable financial advantage Strange enjoys.

"The biggest help Bannon could provide Moore is financial," Brent Buchanan, a Montgomery-based Republican strategist, told AL.Com Sunday. "That has yet to be seen."

The Great American Alliance PAC, which is run by a Bannon protege, is reportedly bankrolling a Moore bus tour through the state this week. The group is expected to host a pro-Moore rally attended by Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund, which is closely connected to McConnell, has pumped millions of dollars into attacks ads against Moore, and some observers believe Trump’s backing for the candidate could swing the election.

“The president is extremely popular here. His approval numbers are in the mid-80s among Republicans,” Blake Harris, an Alabama Republican strategist, told Politico. “Even more, he's got a record of drawing huge crowds in this state—so a visit could definitely make a difference in what is predicted to be a pretty low-turnout election.”

Some have even suggested that the widening rift in the Republican Party could spell the end of decades of two-party dominance of the American political system, with populists possibly breaking off to form a party that would challenge the GOP from the right. Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, told The New York Times the conditions were so ripe for a split: “I’ve been startled that this has not happened.”

It would be a mistake, though, to interpret Trump's position in the Alabama race as indicating he is throwing aside the populist insurgency that brought him to power. In recent weeks he has attacked McConnell ally Flake, who is facing a primary challenge for his Arizona Senate seat. 

As the contest for the soul of the GOP intensifies, everything apparently is in play.