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Republican Establishment Announces Plan To Fight Bannon


This week, two veteran, Republican senators stepped to the mic and said things that, until this point, seemed virtually unsayable by someone in their position. Here's Arizona Senator Jeff Flake speaking about President Trump.


JEFF FLAKE: Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

GREENE: Senator Flake also announced that he would not be seeking another term. He was facing a tough re-election campaign. And the president's former chief of staff, Steve Bannon, was actively campaigning for his opponent. Bannon has said he is waging a war against the GOP establishment and told the Financial Times that Flake went down without a fight. Well, now a branch of the establishment says it is pushing back.

Steven Law is president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a superPAC that helps get establishment Republicans elected. He is at the very center of this fight. And right now he is at the very center of our studios in Washington D.C. Steven Law, welcome back.

STEVEN LAW: Thank you so much.

GREENE: So just over a week ago, we talked, and I asked you about Bannon's influence. And you said it remains to be seen but that you think this is somebody who talks big. But at the end of the day, I just don't see it there. Has something changed in the last 10 days or so?

LAW: Actually, I think a lot has changed that validates what I said a little bit ago. So I'm always glad when that happens. But within the space of the last week we've seen President Trump endorse three Republican senators whom Steve Bannon had slated for destruction. That's a big blow to Steve Bannon. And I think Bannon is trying to style Jeff Flake's departure as a big win for him. But the truth of the matter is I think it means that his hand-picked candidate Kelli Ward is not going to be the Republican nominee. And in fact, just yesterday Steve Bannon's superPAC announced it wasn't going to be spending any more money on behalf of Kelli Flake after spending a grand - I'm sorry - Kelli Ward...

GREENE: ...Ward. Yeah. After spending...

LAW: ....After spending a grand total of $20,000. So I think this reveals that it's harder to do than you think. And you know, Steve Bannon strikes me as somebody who's a lot more interested in grabbing headlines and credit than doing the hard work of actually advancing President Trump's agenda. And I think he's starting to see actually how much more difficult it is than it is simply to talk about it.

GREENE: Well, if you're not worried, then why this counteroffensive? I mean, don't you have plans to go after Bannon personally and really ramp things up.

LAW: Well, you know, contrary to the Breitbart pop-up store at The Washington Post, we're not really focused on going to war with anybody. We're focused on winning Senate seats, replacing Democratic senators who vote against President Trump's agenda with Republicans who will vote for it. And our concern is that candidates who get too wrapped up around Steve Bannon or candidates who Steve Bannon wraps himself around are going to have to answer for his toxic views and his alt-right philosophy when Democrats make him the Willie Horton of their campaign ads in 2018.

GREENE: So just to be clear, you're saying that the stories that have suggested there is a counteroffensive from you and your superPAC and the establishment - are those stories inaccurate? Are you not going after Bannon personally and trying to really work on this?

LAW: Well, what we aim to point out to people who have any thought about flirting with this guy is that he's got a lot of views and a lot of baggage, baggage which incidentally caused his former boss a lot of headaches when he was on the campaign staff and in the White House. And as we are already seeing with Kelli Ward, there's not a lot that he necessarily brings to the table for a candidate. It looks like he walks away from somebody as soon as there's any sign of trouble. And in the meantime, you embrace this guy and these toxic views which we have made known just a little bit and probably will do more of. These are things that Republican candidates will have to deal with when Democrats make Steve Bannon the star of their advertising campaign next fall.

GREENE: OK. It sounds like you have a lot of views about Steve Bannon, so - what you just articulated. So I guess my question is, are you going to be spending money getting that message about Bannon out to Republican voters?

LAW: I don't think we need to do it. I think there's already been a tremendous amount written about this guy. There's a lot out there. And again, as I said earlier, our focus isn't Steve Bannon. Our focus is on making sure that we win Senate races. And our concern has been that viable candidates - we're not concerned about the non-viable ones. But the viable candidates who embrace Steve Bannon are going to have a problem when they have to face him - when they have to face the voters next fall. Democrats already, I'm sure, have a lot of research on this guy. It's not hard to find. And you know, sometimes when you're known by the company you keep. And Republicans are going to have a problem if they're too close to him next year.

GREENE: Are you worried, though, that every dollar you have to spend on primary races to counter Bannon's influence will be money that you are not spending defeating Democrats in a general election?

LAW: Absolutely. You know, one of the things that - it's sort of axiomatic. But if you want to elect more Republicans, you have to go after Democrats. And you know, Steve Bannon is entirely focused on Republicans. He's not particularly focused on Democrats. And you're exactly right. If we have to fight a lot of divisive primaries, all of that money, all of that energy and effort is basically leached away from what our objective is, which is to beat Democrats in states that President Trump won by 20 percentage points or more. Every penny that we spend fighting this sideshow is a gift to Chuck Schumer and the Democratic majority.

GREENE: Let me just ask you. Jeff Flake said that, at this moment, a traditional conservative who believes in limited government, free markets devoted to free trade has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the party. You agree with that?

LAW: I'm not sure that's the case. I respect and admire Senator Flake a lot. I think there were a lot of unique things about his circumstance and a lot of unique reasons that led to his decision to step down. But you know, you look at a state like Tennessee. Marsha Blackburn is running she's a very, very strong conservative but, in many ways, also a supporter of leadership. And I think there's a lot of room for traditional conservatives. And there are a lot of good things that I think this party and the conservative movement are going to get done under the leadership of President Trump.

GREENE: Steven Law is president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a superPAC that backs establishment Republican candidates in Senate races - talking to him about his strategy to counter Steve Bannon's influence within the party. Steven, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.

LAW: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.