Roy Moore wasn’t the only loser Tuesday night. He might not have even been the biggest one.
The Alabama Republican’s stunning defeat at the hands of Democrat Doug Jones dealt a crushing blow to the nascent political operation helmed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who threw every ounce of his political muscle behind Moore’s candidacy, even as many national Republicans, save President Donald Trump, rushed to distance themselves following the emergence of sexual-assault and child-molestation allegations against Moore.
Bannon headlined rallies for Moore, enlisted allies in a political effort to boost his candidacy, and marshaled his website, Breitbart News, to Moore’s defense against those misconduct allegations—and in an effort to discredit the former state supreme court justice’s accusers—with at least one top Breitbart staffer spending the last month of the race in-state. And when it was all said and done, with Jones claiming triumph, the Bannon critics (and there are many) took the chance to dance on his grave.
“Bannon is like so many people that get involved in politics. They work on their first race, their person wins, and they think people voted for them,” said Stu Stevens, the former top strategist to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. As part of his closing argument supporting Moore’s campaign, Bannon had made bashing Romney a rhetorical centerpiece.
“I think Bannon made an ass of himself [tonight],” Stevens added. “Be wary of the angry millionaire.”
Whether the Breitbart chief is actually buried will be determined in the days and weeks ahead. Bannon is not known to be easily humbled and a source close to him simply said that he and his associates were “stunned” by the results of the evening.
They were also busy figuring out the moves ahead, including laying the blame on establishment Republicans for ditching Moore in the midst of his scandals. Though Jones’ margin exceeded 1.5 percent of all votes cast with all precincts reporting, Moore refused to concede the race. The margin is far above the 0.5 percent threshold that triggers an automatic recount in Alabama, but Secretary of State John Merrill said Tuesday evening that any candidate can request a recount as long as the candidate himself pays for it.
The overwhelming likelihood that Jones would be seated could well spark a tectonic shift within the GOP, strategists said Tuesday. They equated it to Scott Brown’s surprise Senate victory in Massachusetts in 2010, which proved to be a political turning point in a young Barack Obama administration.
As in that moment, Tuesday night’s ramifications for the current president could prove profound. Dispensing with the concerns of some of his advisers and family members, Trump decided to forcefully boost Moore’s candidacy in the final weeks. He specifically touted it as a means of helping move forward his governing agenda, which now finds itself more in peril.
White House officials told The Daily Beast earlier Tuesday that the president kept tabs on the race in his residence in the White House. When he finally weighed in just after 11 p.m., Trump’s response was uncharacteristically muted.
“Congratulations to Doug Jones on a hard fought victory,” the president wrote on Twitter. “The write-in votes played a very big factor, but a win is a win. The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!”
One senior Trump aide stressed early Tuesday that Trump would take a Jones upset “very, very” hard—not least, the aide said, because it would rob the president of the ability to goad his predecessor, Barack Obama, over getting involved on Jones’ behalf. (Obama didn’t touch the race until its final days, when he put out a robocall on behalf of the Democratic contender.)
As much as he would have been a governing ally for the president, Moore was also an avatar for a distinctively Trump-era style of politics. Bannon, in particular, considered Moore a leader of his crusade against the Republican establishment in Washington, and against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) specifically. When Moore prevailed in a primary challenge to Sen. Luther Strange in September, Bannon allies were sure to point the finger directly at McConnell, who, they said, was so disliked in the state as to make his endorsement a poison pill.
McConnell allies were sure to reciprocate the sentiment in the wake of a massive upset that brought the Republican margin in the Senate down to just a single vote.
“Steve Bannon has done more for Democrats than they could’ve ever thought possible,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. ”Bannon displayed an absolutely breathtaking display of political incompetence that will go down in the annals of history for every Republican to mourn for generations.”
Though McConnell allies squarely blamed Bannon for the loss, it was the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-allied super PAC, that helped pave the way for Moore’s primary victory. The group spent significant sums hammering Rep. Mo Brooks, a conservative House member perceived as a likely threat to Strange’s incumbency. Moore, on the other hand, was seen as an easy target for Strange in a head-to-head primary runoff. But Moore prevailed, and his faults proved deadly in a general election.
SLF stayed out of the general-election contest, and other prominent arms of the Republican political machine did the same. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which withdrew from a joint fundraising pact with Moore in the wake of his sexual-misconduct allegations, quickly—if perhaps fancifully—attempted to capitalize on that stance by immediately courting Jones’ vote once it became clear he’d prevail.
“Tonight’s results are clear—the people of Alabama deemed Roy Moore unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate,” said NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner in a statement. “I hope Senator-elect Doug Jones will do the right thing and truly represent Alabama by choosing to vote with the Senate Republican Majority.”
Bannon and his anti-establishment allies, several of whom traveled to Alabama for what they expected would be a Tuesday night victory party, had been feeling incredibly optimistic about Moore’s chances right up until the race’s sudden shift, around 10 p.m. ET, in Jones’s direction.
“I’m feeling pretty good about it,” Corey Stewart, former chairman of the Trump campaign in Virginia and failed gubernatorial candidate, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday afternoon. Stewart said he would leave the Yellowhammer State on Wednesday.
“People can see through this attempt by Washington elites to try to pick the next senator from Alabama, and they don’t like it,” he continued. “I’m talking about Mitch McConnell, and Condi Rice, and Cory Gardner. Naturally, people resent that.”
Still, Stewart felt there was something to worry about, even as he predicted Moore’s imminent triumph that never came.
“The reason I’m here is when the establishment is done with Roy Moore, they’re going to try to crush me and any other anti-establishment, pro-Trump candidates for U.S. Senate and for Congress,” he said. “So I’m here for solidarity. They’re gonna try to pick us off one by one, so we gotta stick together, man.”
If the messaging emerging out of the so-called Republican establishment on Tuesday night is any indication, Stewart has a point. Insurgent and Bannon-aligned forces in Trump’s GOP now find themselves playing defense in an ongoing civil conflict.