Immediately after the Associated Press called the Alabama Senate race for Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the knives started coming out on the Republican side. It was, after all, a stunning result in a deep red state, even when considering the allegations against Jones’ opponent, Roy Moore, who multiple women have said pursued relationships with them when they were minors.
Some on the right are blaming Jones’ loss on Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who ardently stood by Moore even as top Republicans abandoned him. Moore was exactly the sort of candidate who appeals to Bannon — an outsider populist with extreme views who frustrates party brass — and Bannon stood beside him until the very end. Many who are criticizing Bannon are affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a frequent target in Bannon’s war on establishment Republicans.
“This is a brutal reminder that candidate quality matters regardless of where you are running,” read a statement from Steve Law, President and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a pro-McConnell “super PAC” that spent millions to defeat Moore. “Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco.”
Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former campaign manager and Chief of Staff, attacked Bannon even before the race was called. “Before we get the results, I’d just like to thank Steve Bannon for showing us how to lose the reddest state in the union and Governor Ivey for the opportunity to make this national embarrassment a reality,” he tweeted late Tuesday, the night of the election.
At least two sitting Republican lawmakers hopped on the anti-Bannon wagon Wednesday morning. Rep. Adam Kinzinger disparaged Bannon as a “RINO” — Republican-in-name-only — and said his strategies were “morally inept” and not welcome in his party. New York Congressman Peter King, never afraid to speak his mind, took things a step further. “This guy does not belong on the political stage. He looks like some disheveled drunk that wondered onto the political stage,” King said of Bannon on CNN’s New Day Wednesday. “He does not represent anything I stand for.”
Still, some Republicans’ fingers are pointing elsewhere — particularly those connected to pro-Bannon hands. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity said McConnell deserves “a lot of the blame” for Moore’s loss because the majority leader backed Alabama Sen. Luther Strange in the initial Republican primary instead of Rep. Mo Brooks, who failed to make it to the Republican runoff. “Mo Brooks would have won by 20% of the vote, and McConnell interference hurt badly,” Hannity said on Twitter.
Dan Eberhart, a finance and oil executive, Republican donor and frequent McConnell critic, said Moore’s loss wasn’t necessarily referendum on Bannon, but reflected poorly on McConnell. “I think Bannon showed candidates he will stick by them when it gets tough. No matter what,” Eberhart wrote in an email to TIME. “This is a triple loss for McConnell: he blew [Senate Leadership Fund] and [National Republican Senatorial Committee] money, frustrated his relationship with Trump and lost in Alabama.”
No matter who Republicans hold responsible for Moore’s loss, the ongoing blame game underscores the party’s deep divides. While some on the right are eager to cast Bannon and his divisive populism aside, others are confident that he’ll remain a force to be reckoned with as 2018’s midterm elections near. “Nobody on the Republican side is a winner after last night,” said Eric Beach, a Republican campaign manager working with a Bannon-backed Senate candidate in Arizona. “What matters is there a wave out there that started in 2010 with the Tea Party . . . and really has helped propel Donald Trump into the White House,” he said. “That hasn’t gone anywhere.”