Jeff Flake saw the writing on the wall.
Republican senators stood on the floor of the Senate Tuesday afternoon in a somber display, giving Flake a standing ovation as he announced his retirement in a searing speech criticizing President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, seemed overjoyed. "Another day, another scalp," was his reaction, according to a source close to him interviewed by NBC News.
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Incumbent Republican senators are increasingly under fire from the right. Flake was trailing a primary challenger by about 25 points in polls before he called it quits. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), facing a potential primary threat of his own, announced he'd retire too. And appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) went down to defeat during a primary runoff against outsider Roy Moore.
All three had been targeted for defeat by Bannon, as part of what he recently called his "war against the GOP establishment." And there are more to come. There will be at most six incumbent Republican senators on the ballot next year. Bannon hopes to target five of them. "They're heading into a titanic political fight," says Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. "And they underestimate it at their peril."
One Republican consultant with ties to Senate leadership characterized Bannon's effort as incoherent. "He's almost like a mad dog chasing a car who doesn't know why he's chasing it," the consultant said.
But conversations with conservative activists, GOP operatives, and people close to Bannon and the White House suggest that the Breitbart executive chair is engaged in a bold, ambitious project that has a relatively clear vision. He doesn't just want to destroy the old Republican establishment — he wants to build a new one.
To do that, he hopes to unite many factions of the right who have gripes against GOP leadership into a broad coalition. That would include immigration hardliners who fear "amnesty" deals. But it would also include social conservatives and anti-spending activists who feel their priorities are too often ignored or compromised away.
Overall, he wants Republican senators to care far less about what the Chamber of Commerce thinks, and far more about what Breitbart readers think.
A source close to Bannon describes his basic pitch to all these disparate groups as a simple one: "The elites have failed us."