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Conservatives aren't done with Steve Bannon yet

Katie Glueck, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Wednesday repudiated his former chief strategist, saying Steve Bannon was never as influential as he claimed to be -- but the far-right candidates who have long clamored for Bannon's support aren't willing to disavow him so quickly.

In an explosive statement, the president suggested that Bannon had "lost his mind" and was a source of leaks in his White House -- comments that came after excerpts of a forthcoming book landed, quoting Bannon making stunningly critical comments about the Trump family and the investigation into the campaign's connections to Russia.

The new rift between Trump and Bannon creates an awkward and uncomfortable dynamic for GOP candidates who have courted Bannon for months, seeing his nod as the ultimate in pro-Trump credentials -- a reputation that Trump shredded on Wednesday.

But in the hours after Trump issued his statement, there was little appetite for a total break with Bannon, now the head of the hard-right outlet Breitbart. Certainly some GOP candidates criticized the reported comments or downplayed the significance of their previously coveted Bannon endorsements.

Others, however, chose to rally behind Bannon instead.

"If Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the president's back, I welcome his support," read a statement from Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Heller, Nevada's Republican senator, in a marquee Senate race.

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All fall, a host of deeply anti-establishment candidates -- as well as some more mainstream contenders -- were in touch with Bannon and his allies. They traipsed to his Capitol Hill headquarters for meetings, stayed in touch over text and sought out his blessing, to the frustration of many Republican operatives and leaders who see Bannon as a deeply destructive force.

McClatchy asked a half-dozen previously Bannon-admiring Republican campaigns (and one potential candidate) on Wednesday whether they would now reject Bannon, in light of Trump's comments. None said outright that they would.

Trump "is the leader we have long desired and the one who will turn our country around," emailed Alabama state Rep. Barry Moore, who is challenging Rep. Martha Roby in an Alabama House district. "And, at the same time, Steve Bannon is, has been, and will be a key voice in articulating the frustrations conservatives have been feeling for years. Any potential strain on that relationship is just that -- a strain between two men with strong personalities, ideas, and vision for our country."

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has been in close contact with Bannon in the past and is weighing a Senate bid, didn't comment on Bannon's reported remarks, or answer directly whether he would still want Bannon's support. Instead, he blamed a familiar bogeyman for the situation: "The establishment."


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