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Steve Bannon's move to purge the GOP may backfire

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon delivers remarks during the Value Voters Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, U.S., October 14, 2017.
Mary F. Calvert | Reuters
Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon delivers remarks during the Value Voters Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, U.S., October 14, 2017.

While President Trump claims that his relations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have never been better and while Stephen Bannon continues his war against McConnell and a long list of Republican Senators, we will learn whether Bannon is fronting for Trump or acting against him.

If Bannon does not end his attacks against incumbent GOP senators, we will know that he is colluding with the president, who is dividing Republicans — and all Americans — against each other and endangering GOP control of the Senate.

In the 10th month of the Trump presidency, the Republican Congress still has not passed one major piece of legislation proposed by the Republican president, public disapproval of Congress stands at levels that should be alarming to all incumbent Republican senators, and the president and GOP leaders in the House and Senate all suffer from abnormally high levels of disapproval.

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Bannon is bidding to become the most powerful Republican in America by seeking to promote primary challengers against key Republicans in Congress, including possible primary challenges against every incumbent Republican senator running for reelection in 2018 except Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

While public disapproval of various congressional leadership has historically surged at times, what is different this time is that the president and congressional leaders of his party are so unpopular at the same time. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and McConnell both suffer from high levels of public disapproval along with Trump and the Republican Congress itself.

Bannon is attempting a wholesale purge of the Republican Party by constantly attacking House and Senate Republican leaders in aggressively ideological and personal terms and actively seeking primary challenges against a large and growing number of Republican incumbents now serving in Washington.

The GOP long ago purged liberal Republicans out of the party. Now, Bannon seeks to purge moderate, centrist, center-right conservatives and bipartisan Republicans out of the party. What kind of Republican Party will be left if Bannon and far-right conservative groups succeed in their attempts to oust even very staunch conservatives, such as Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)?

There are various potential outcomes to the Bannon play. Trump may seek to persuade Bannon to end his attempted purge and succeed. Trump may not try to persuade Bannon to end his purge, which should show he has been colluding with Bannon behind the scenes.

If Bannon proceeds with his planned purge, his candidates could be defeated by more moderate or establishment Republicans in primaries. However, there is a very strong chance that Bannon succeeds and his candidates win a succession of primaries against incumbent Republicans, in which case, Bannon could well become the most powerful Republican in America.

Few will publicly admit it, but many key Democrats are privately rooting for Bannon to succeed in his play to purge the Republican Party. With Trump, McConnell, Ryan and the Republican Congress so unpopular with voters at the same time, Democrats have a strong chance to regain control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.

With Republican Senators potentially facing a surge of ugly and divisive primary challenges, it is now possible to envision a scenario where Senate Democrats have a slim but realistic chance of winning back control of the Senate, a possibility that was unthinkable two months ago.

Remember the 2010 midterms? That year, there was a wave election that brought House Republicans to power, but the GOP nominated fringe, right-wing candidates in key Senate races, including Nevada and Delaware, who were defeated by Democrats.

Remember the 2012 Senate elections? Democrats had to defend far more seats than Republicans are trying to do in 2018, and back then, the GOP nominated fringe candidates in Missouri and Indiana, a mistake that enabled Democrats to prolong their control.

It is possible that in 2018, Democrats win a wave election that gives them control of the House, while Republicans nominate fringe candidates for the Senate that give Democrats a narrow victory to regain control of the Senate as well.

Bannon may or may not end up being the most powerful Republican in America, but what he does in the coming months will probably make him the most important Republican in America.

Commentary by Brent Budowsky, an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), then-chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. in international financial law from the London School of Economics.

This commentary originally ran on The Hill.

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