In Alabama, Bannon asks Republicans to win one for Trump

Updated 12/6/2017 1:54 PM
  • Former White House strategist Steve Bannon speaks Tuesday during a rally for U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore in Fairhope Ala.

    Former White House strategist Steve Bannon speaks Tuesday during a rally for U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore in Fairhope Ala. Associated Press

  • Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore

    Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore Associated Press/Sept. 25, 2017

FAIRHOPE, Ala. -- In one week, Alabama Republicans would learn whether Roy Moore, their embattled nominee for Senate, could overcome multiple allegations of sexual assault and win a special election.

But on Tuesday night, Stephen Bannon came to Alabama bearing good news: Roy Moore had already won.

"This whole thing was a setup, right?" said Bannon to hundreds of Moore supporters crammed into a barn near Alabama's Gulf Coast. "Even Chuck Todd of NBC, of Matt Lauer fame -- he said, it looked like a coordinated hit. Because Mitch McConnell's out 47 minutes later, saying Roy Moore should drop out. Well, Mitch McConnell said on Sunday: Let the people of Alabama decide."

Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, who left the White House in the summer and reassumed control of Breitbart News, described a Washington that had been humbled by Moore's refusal to quit the race, and by Republicans' refusal to believe the mainstream media.

In their speeches, Moore, Bannon, and Moore's most loyal local surrogates demonstrated how they had reframed the race. It had become less a contest of candidates, and more of a way to beat the "establishment" -- by giving President Donald Trump another vote in the Senate.

The rally, which had been planned before Trump officially endorsed Moore, became an epilogue to Moore's successful Republican standoff. As Bannon spoke, with rain beating down on the barn, the Republican National Committee was sending $170,000 to the state GOP, reversing a three-week-old boycott of Moore.

Tuesday's rally, which drew several hundred voters to a safely Republican county, felt more like a presidential visit than a Senate rally with the star of Breitbart News. (Trump, who will visit Florida's Gulf Coast on Friday, is not expected to campaign in Alabama.)

A large security perimeter protected Moore and Bannon from anyone who lacked a "backstage" badge. American and European TV crews roamed the grounds of Oak Hollow Farm, asking voters whether they believed the seven women who accused Moore of sexual assault when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.

They came away with a familiar answer: That Moore's accusers could not be trusted, or that they might even have been paid to slander a decent man. John Sowell, surrounded by cameramen as he and his wife Abigail distributed flashy, homemade Moore signs, explained that Alabamians simply did not behave as crudely as Moore's accusers.

"They say this happened in the 1970s, and back in those days, a man would not force a woman's head down toward his crotch," said Sowell, 69. "We're not as sexually liberal as a lot of the country. When one of those women said that, I knew it was a lie."

In interviews, Moore's supporters were not simply skeptical of the allegations, but aware of specific theories that the Moore campaign and conservative media had circulated to discredit them.

That was a victory for Bannon and Breitbart News, which had responded to the Nov. 9 story in The Washington Post about Moore's first accusers by dispatching reporters to Alabama to write a counternarrative.

Bannon, who had openly hoped for Moore to become the first in a wave of insurgent in 2018 candidates, did not say much about the race at first. But throughout November, Breitbart published stories about Moore's accusers, and the smaller details of their stories, that the campaign would cite to blunt the allegations.

On Tuesday night, Bannon made explicit what Republicans had begun to say quietly -- Moore's tumble and subsequent fightback echoed what had happened to Trump in the final month of the 2016 election.

"Stephen K. Bannon stood with President Donald Trump. He didn't jump ship," said Moore adviser Dean Young, in a clear reference to the "Access Hollywood" audio leak.

Like Trump, whose fightback had been led by Bannon, Moore's allies took shots at the media lined up to cover them.

"It's not working, fake media," said Young, pointing to the two dozen cameras staged at the back of the rally.

Bannon went further, joking that a heckler who briefly interrupted him -- only to be marched out by a large security detail -- was a "CNN producer" who had come unhinged. Over 30 minutes, which ranged from attacks on Mitt Romney to mockery of Sen. Jeff Flake's, an Arizona Republican, donation to Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, Bannon put the attacks on the media in a larger context. The press, he said, would not cover the president's clear and undeniable successes.

"The physical caliphate of ISIS has been destroyed," said Bannon, using a different name for the Islamic State. "Unemployment, 17-year low. Black unemployment, 16-year low ... if Barack Obama had done that, they'd have given him another Nobel Prize."

As Obama found out, in two disastrous midterms, voters can be hard to sell on the idea of giving a president more support in Congress. In Washington, Republicans have grown increasingly nervous that Trump's low approval ratings, and low support for the party's agenda on taxes and health care, will lead to a midterm voter backlash.

In Alabama, Bannon and Moore argued that failing to turn out would effectively hand power back to the people Trump was fighting. Jones, said Bannon, was a "Hillary Clinton globalist." Trump's Republican critics were "trying to nullify the 2016 election" by allowing probes of his campaign to continue.

When he took the stage, Moore attacked Jones as a "Clinton appointee and Obama delegate" -- both accurate statements, as Jones was confirmed as a U.S. attorney during Bill Clinton's second term, and Jones was a delegate for Obama in 2012. But the candidate was often as discursive as Bannon, at one point arguing that Republicans had achieved little in 2017.

"We still have NAFTA, we still have CAFTA," he said. "We still have no wall."

Moore, who became an icon on the religious right by refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from a public display, crackled to life when attacking Jones on social issues. In a vague reference to Jones' ads, which have accused Moore of dodging real issues, Moore said that the Democrat was out of touch.

"Transgender bathrooms -- that's a kitchen table issue," said Moore.

But Moore, who had refused to debate Jones even before becoming mired in scandal, got louder applause when he attacked Washington Republicans for not being loyal to voters. Bannon returned to the theme again and again, as voters shouted out the names of Republicans -- McConnell, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., House Speaker Paul Ryan -- who had not been faithful to Trump or Moore.

"You're not going to be able to walk away, Mitch," Bannon said. "The folks of Alabama were always going to decide this. We know what changed your mind. The polls came back."

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