×

Why the GOP establishment isn’t afraid of Steve Bannon

  • GOP strategists are reportedly not worried about 2018 primary threats led by Steve Bannon.
  • But establishment Republicans and Democrats should be afraid of something else: Themselves.
  • Voter dislike of establishment Washington is at an historic high and the carnage in the midterms for incumbents could be severe.
Former advisor to President Donald Trump and executive chairman of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon introduces Roy Moore, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, at an election-night rally on September 26, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Getty Images
Former advisor to President Donald Trump and executive chairman of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon introduces Roy Moore, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, at an election-night rally on September 26, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The GOP establishment is not afraid of Steve Bannon.

Nope, not even a little bit.

That's even though there are growing challenges to that establishment springing up all over the country.

The latest comes from Wyoming, where Bannon may be the reason why major Republican donor Foster Friess is considering challenging incumbent Senator John Barrasso next year. Bannon has reportedly spoken to Friess recently along with another potential Republican challenger to Barrasso, Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

This all comes after the Bannon-backed Judge Roy Moore just scored a commanding defeat of establishment GOP candidate Luther Strange in the Republican primary for Alabama's open U.S. Senate seat last month. A new report quotes several top GOP strategists who say that Moore's win was in the bag long before Bannon got involved and was due to a number of unique circumstances that don't play a role in other primaries and general elections coming up across the country in 2018.

You know what? Those GOP strategists are right. Moore has been a household name in Alabama for more than a decade thanks to his famous battle to display the 10 Commandments inside his courtroom in the late 1990s when he was a circuit court judge. The controversy propelled him to a victorious run for chief justice of the state supreme court in 2000. He was a tough guy to beat even though Strange had strong financial backing from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the strong verbal support of President Donald Trump.

And while the Wyoming news definitely represents a possible new front on the war on the establishment, nothing has changed there yet.

But that doesn't mean Republican veterans in Congress are in the clear by any stretch. That's because it's not Steve Bannon the GOP establishment has to fear. It's themselves.

"2018 isn't about red vs. blue America, it's about the political class vs. everyone else. And the only way for establishment types in both parties to stave off early retirement will be to stop doing the same old, same old."

For some reason, the top establishment figures in both parties don't seem to have any clue that the public is roundly rejecting them. The first big clue was the way an outsider like then-candidate Trump whipped 16 much more experienced establishment Republicans in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. The second clue was when Trump went on to defeat the Democratic establishment-picked candidate Hillary Clinton.

The third and even more telling clue is that no member of the leadership of either party barely merits a blip in the national opinion polls. In the widely-quoted Harvard-Harris poll from this August, nominal Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders came in as the most popular U.S. politician, with Democrat and Republican leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan way down the list.

Meanwhile, President Trump remains stuck at historically low approval ratings, especially for a president in his first year in office. The fact is that Mr. Trump won the election not because of any strong popular support for him personally, but because of deep disdain for the establishment powers in both parties. And while Hillary Clinton did nothing to try to distance herself from that establishment image, Trump constantly did and continues to do so with every irreverent comment and tweet.

And the establishment leaders keep proving they're simply going to do more of the same. McConnell's failed efforts to get an Obamacare repeal and replacement bill passed were deeply rooted in his Washington-business-as-usual work with insurance company lobbyists to craft the bill in the first place.

Meanwhile, the establishment Democrats have done their part to continue playing the unpopular role of partisan politicians by refusing to do much other than pursue still-fruitless investigations of the administration and generally hoping to block all legislation and nominations.

This kind of behavior — corrupt at worst, pointless at best — is precisely why President Trump won, but it goes beyond him.

It's also why other non-political veterans like Oprah Winfrey and Mark Cuban are getting all the attention as potential presidential election challengers and almost no one is talking about someone with actual experience in political office. The country's voters, whether they're traditionally conservative or liberal, want something different... very different.

So if Steve Bannon and his Breitbart News buddies declare war on GOP incumbents and score a victory or two in 2018, chalk it up to a wise decision to swim with a very strong current going that way anyway. Bannon is no dummy, but it won't take a genius to succeed in this atmosphere.

The map of the playing field for 2018 in the crucial Senate elections is unusually tilted in favor of a continuing Republican majority because only eight currently GOP-held seats are up for re-election and 25 Democrat-held seats are up for grabs. Those 25 slots include 10 Senate seats held by Democrats in states President Trump won in the 2016 election and the obvious anti-establishment fervor is strong.

There are still establishment Republican incumbents Bannon and other Republican insurgents may target, like Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Orin Hatch of Utah. But the list of establishment Democrats to go after is much longer and will be just as tempting for any anti-establishment forces to challenge. They include Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Indiana's Joe Donnelly, and New Jersey's Bob Menendez, who is currently on trial for bribery and corruption.

With the Republicans likely to keep and increase their Senate majority, look for the anti-establishment types to focus more of their energies on ousting Senator McConnell as majority leader in the months before and after the election, depending on how long he holds on.

2018 isn't about red vs. blue America, it's about the political class vs. everyone else. And the only way for establishment types in both parties to stave off early retirement will be to stop doing the same old, same old. That might seem like an easy fix to non-politicians. But for the entrenched perpetual D.C. candidates and bureaucrats, it's proving to be a hard change. Still, when people don't change along with changing times, they get pushed aside.

And Steve Bannon or no Steve Bannon, a lot of Washington's incumbents in both parties look like they are going to get pushed aside over the course of the next 13 months.

Correction: This column was revised to correct that McConnell and Trump had backed Strange over Moore in the special election.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.