Karl Rove and Steve Bannon each masterminded winning presidential campaigns, served in the upper reaches of the White House, and instilled both fear and adoration within their own party.
Now, Democrats are seeing to it that the pair shares one more distinction: the role of campaign trail bogeyman.
White House staffers are not usually the focus of campaign attacks. But in federal and state races, Democrats across the country have turned this ex-presidential aide — like George W. Bush’s Rove before him — into the avatar of everything wrong and extreme about the GOP, relishing the chance to tie Bannon to Republican candidates.
It's a messaging tactic that has intensified in the last two weeks, as Bannon, the ex-White House chief strategist, ramps up his involvement on behalf of anti-establishment candidates in GOP primaries across the country — giving Democrats a new opportunity to highlight growing GOP disunity.
When New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter announced retirement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee swiped, “we look forward to competing against whomever Steve Bannon nominates.”
When Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner shared a plane ride with Bannon recently, the state’s Senate Democratic Campaign Committee used the appearance as a list-building exercise, blasting out an email detailing Wagner’s meeting with “Steve Bannon, the radical adviser to Donald Trump who left the White House in a cloud of disgrace,” and urging readers to “tell Scott Wagner to get back to work in Harrisburg.”
And when ex-GOP Rep. Michael Grimm, who was jailed for felony tax fraud and is now seeking his old Staten Island House seat again, landed Bannon’s endorsement, the DCCC offered a statement of its own: “It apparently wasn’t enough that Michael Grimm had a felony conviction on his resume and now he can add the backing of a white nationalist to go along with it.”
Bannon and his allies have rejected accusations of bigotry that have plagued him since the presidential campaign, tied in part to his remark that he saw his hard-right outlet, Breitbart, as a “platform” for the “alt-right,” a movement associated with racism and anti-Semitism.
But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from seizing on his polarizing rhetoric and seeking to associate other Republicans with it.
“People do know who he is, and they do know what he’s done,” said Beth Melena, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “The more you can talk about him and how far right he is and how he’s recruiting these candidates like Scott Wagner, it sets the tone for them being too far to right for the people of Pennsylvania.”
Efforts to cast Bannon as a shadowy, nefarious force are reminiscent in some ways of Democratic messaging around Rove, efforts that lasted — especially as a fundraising pitch — well beyond the Bush era.
But Democrats now insist that there is a big difference between Rove and Bannon.
“Karl Rove was the Republican Party. Steve Bannon has declared war on the Republican Party,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist and communications operative. “And it’s a war that is making Washington even more dysfunctional than it’s been.”
“The more that the tensions and divisions within the Republican Party are spotlighted, the more it reminds voters that they are unable to govern,” said Ferguson. “When voters see their own party feuding with itself, they are reminded that Republicans can’t achieve the basic expectations for a governing majority.”
Indeed, the Democratic focus on Bannon comes as he deepens his efforts to play in GOP primaries, seeking to aid insurgent-minded candidates who threaten to be headaches for GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Bannon has vowed to boost anti-establishment candidates and primary challengers in most of the major Senate races next year, a pledge some Republican Party officials view with skepticism — but also, with alarm, as conservatives clamor for Bannon’s backing.
"The GOP infighting, escalated by Bannon, is intensifying Republican primaries that are already raging in Senate races across the map,” said David Bergstein, press secretary at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They will drain even more resources from the GOP, the intra-party brawls will get nastier, and their ultimate nominees will emerge even more damaged."
Democrats are aiming to portray Bannon as a voice of intolerance, the embodiment of the things their base fears most (plenty of Republicans have also expressed their grave concerns about Bannon).
But Andy Surabian, an adviser to Bannon who also worked closely with him at the White House, bristled at attacks suggesting that Bannon is bigoted. “They play word games, they call Steve extreme and radical, but the truth is, they’re radical, they’re extreme,” he said of Democrats.
“It shows how desperate and shallow the Democrat Party is, that they don’t have a positive message, they have no message anymore,” he said. “Trump basically upended the political dynamics that they thought existed in this country. Now they’re reduced to focusing on various bogeymen, whether it be Steve or the president, and quite frankly, it’s sad.”
Other Republicans who watched closely efforts to make Rove a wedge figure said those attacks had dubious impact — and they are skeptical the Bannon messaging will move the needle much, either.
“My recollection of Karl is, they would invoke his name as a fundraising tool,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP operative and commentator who worked in the political affairs department of the Bush White House with Rove. “To me that’s probably the greatest use of turning these strategists into bogeyman. But very, very, very, very few people sit there and, of all the things they have to think about in life, [say], ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’ve got to make my congressional or Senate decision based on somebody’s strategist, or [if] they may have met with a strategist.’ I don’t see it.”
Democrats such as Ferguson also stressed that the overarching plan is to keep a tight, and critical, focus on the Republican Party’s policies, including its health care and tax plans.
More broadly, the party is still hesitant to tie political messaging to Trump and his associates, after an election in which that very approach yielded disappointing results. And to the extent that Democrats do focus on individual Republican personalities, they are more likely to highlight someone like House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom party strategists regard as a better symbol of Washington dysfunction and an unpopular GOP agenda.
But there’s no doubt that Bannon’s increasingly visible involvement has given Democrats one more way to message against Trump.
“If Steve Bannon endorses you, you then have a large number of people who are going to be troubled about whether they should vote for that person, and they tend to vote Republican,” said Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Trump’s brand in 2018 is going to be a total disaster, and Bannon is the amplification of that."