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Under fire after Moore loss, Bannon reloads for war on McConnell

Steve Bannon is bloodied but ready for the next round of his guerrilla war against the GOP establishment.
Image: Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a campaign rally for Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore in Midland City
Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a campaign rally for Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore on December 11, 2017 in Midland City, Alabama.Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Steve Bannon is bloodied but ready for the next round of his guerrilla war against the GOP establishment after his candidate lost a shot at a Senate seat that's been in Republican hands for more than two decades.

The first step, according to sources in Bannon's camp, is to use the defeat in conservative Alabama to argue that Republican Roy Moore would have won if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other establishment GOP leaders hadn't abandoned him in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. Moore denies that he did anything improper.

But now Moore is at once a historical footnote and the political football in a Republican blame game that started within minutes of Democrat Doug Jones being declared the winner Tuesday night. McConnell, who is deeply unpopular, may have more to lose because he's in office and Bannon is not.

McConnell allies were quick to pile on Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who fancies himself the guardian of the political movement that elected Donald Trump president.

"When it comes to Alabama politics Steve Bannon should have followed President @realDonaldTrump lead in supporting Luther Strange," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Twitter, referring to the interim senator whom Moore defeated with Bannon's backing in a September primary runoff.

Graham also tried to put distance between Bannon and Trump, who first backed Strange and then endorsed Moore for the general election despite the misconduct allegations against Moore.

"Trump's instincts on the Alabama race proved to be correct," Graham said.

The point: Bannon walked Trump into a trap.

Trump isn't upset with Bannon, one White House official told NBC News, but the rest of the Republican establishment sees him as the root reason that Democrats picked up the Alabama Senate seat.

Josh Holmes, McConnell's former chief of staff, said Tuesday night that Bannon deserves enshrinement "in the Democratic consultant Hall of Fame" for helping Moore defeat an incumbent GOP senator in the primary who almost certainly would have kept the seat in Republican hands had he won the nomination.

Moore's defeat means Republicans' Senate majority narrows to 51-49 at a time when they've had difficulty moving major pieces of Trump's agenda and Democrats are starting to convince themselves that they have a shot of winning control next year.

Bannon, who has blamed McConnell for those failures and who is on a mission to oust him from the Senate's top job, is trying to convince Republicans that the majority leader's timidity is the reason Democrats won a seat in a state that gave Trump 62 percent of its votes in 2016.

His immediate strategy, said one person familiar with it, is to "make McConnell own the Democrat."

Andy Surabian, an aide to Bannon, said Trump's base will be angry at McConnell and punish him by beating his favored candidates in Senate primaries before next November's midterm general election.

"After doing everything in their power to throw this election to a liberal Democrat, the McConnell establishment should expect the very same America First movement that elected the president in 2016 to be out for their blood in 2018," Surabian said.

And, on his Sirius XM radio show Wednesday, Bannon credited Democrats with "out-hustling" the GOP on the ground in Alabama — praise that could be interpreted as an argument that the presence of Senate Republican campaign committee field staff would have aided Moore.

But McConnell and Senate Republicans believe they had good reason to walk away from Moore: They worried about the damage he could do to the party's brand before the midterms and beyond because of the allegations against him and his firebrand politics.

Because Trump and Bannon supported Moore actively, it is likely Democrats will try to use Moore as a symbol of the GOP's values even though he lost to Jones.

The bottom line: While McConnell and his allies aim to reduce Bannon's influence with Trump and with base Republican voters, he has no intention of backing down. If anything, Tuesday's results seem to have convinced him it's time to re-arm for the next battle.