This past April, two Breitbart alumni joined the campaign of Kelli Ward, an insurgent conservative preparing to challenge Republican Sen. Jeff Flake on a familiar Trump-style platform to “drain the swamp” and “Make America Great Again.”
Ward officially kicked off her campaign last week at an event attended by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and Breitbart executive chair and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Later that same day, the two Breitbart writers, Jennifer Lawrence and Dustin Stockton, quit. After working on her campaign for more than six months, they had come to believe that Ward was not the true believer she claimed to be.
It was a stunning reversal from this summer when Stockton said, “Ward truly wants to represent the people of Arizona. Flake, on the other hand, thinks that the people of Arizona are ignorant and just need to be educated by him and his fellow DC elitists.”
Ward’s mission statement hasn’t changed. Her policy positions haven’t changed. Her speeches haven’t changed. But Lawrence and Stockton now doubt her commitment to their brand of conservatism. Stockton is tweeting that Ward will give up "people, principles, ideas [and] laws" to win political office. In a statement, Lawrence and Stockton said that their initial decision to support Ward by "legitimizing her campaign" in 2016 and continuing to run outreach efforts this year had been a massive error. "We are sorry to the #MAGA activists and the people of Arizona because they deserve better candidates."
The race between Ward and Flake is perhaps the clearest example of an ideological and strategic war playing out inside the Republican Party. Ward represents the Bannon-Trump vision for the party. She even received a personal endorsement from Trump for her embrace of populism, nationalism, and hardline rhetoric that propelled Trump to the White House. While the rest of the party is committed to nearly identical policies, they are viewed as entrenched in the system, denizens of the "swamp."
The departure of Lawrence and Stockton from the Ward campaign gets at something fundamental about this fight. In an election season that’s all about the definition of conservatism, what does “conservative” actually mean anymore? And how do candidates prove they are?
Steve Bannon is going to spend a lot of money on Ward-style candidates
Until August, Steve Bannon was President Trump's chief strategist. His exit from the West Wing worried the nationalist-populist right. Breitbart senior editor at large Joel Pollak told CNBC, "I think there's a fear among conservatives that with Steve Bannon gone, essentially the Trump administration could become in all but name a Democratic administration. We'll see if Trump can pull back a team of rivals that can work together to fulfill the agenda he was elected on."
But Bannon saw an opportunity: to fight for protectionist trade policies (and against so-called “economic hate crimes” like NAFTA), wildly restrictionist immigration laws, and, most of all, Donald Trump — outside the walls (and restrictions) of the White House.
He's starting by taking down who he believes is responsible for Trump's legislative failures: Republicans. He is planning to launch multimillion-dollar "anti-establishment" campaigns against congressional Republicans nationwide whom he believes to be operating in direct opposition to Trump's (and his) agenda — even targeting conservative Republicans who have been largely supportive of Trump, like Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada. "Nobody’s safe,” he told Sean Hannity in early October. “We’re coming after all of them and we’re going to win."
"Bannon represents a strain of "conservatism" that is not about policy, ideas, or persuasion," said Jay Caruso, a member of the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News and a contributor to National Review and RedState.com. "It's more about anger at the establishment and Republicans who don't show fealty to Donald Trump."
Fox News contributor Stephen L. Miller put it simply: "Bannon wants candidates like him." That means that conservative bona fides mean little. Tennessee's Bob Corker has an 88 percent rating from FreedomWorks, but according to Bannon, he's a part of an "establishment, globalist clique" and should resign immediately — because he spoke out against Trump.
And on the top of Bannon's hit list is Ward's opponent, Sen. Jeff Flake, who enraged the right by refusing to endorse Donald Trump last summer. That's why Breitbart News is still supporting Ward's candidacy, quoting her as being a "liberty-loving constitutional conservative who is ready to go to Washington, DC, and drain the swamp." The Ward campaign in Arizona is supposed to be among Bannon's crowning achievements: taking down one anti-Trump Republican and replacing him with a Trump acolyte.
Stockton and Lawrence have Trumpian political instincts, and the far-right background to prove it
So it's no wonder two Breitbart journalists — and experienced conservative activists — went to Arizona to help Ward's campaign compete against not only Sen. Flake but also Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, whom Ward would likely face in 2018.
In fact, barely two months ago, Stockton and Lawrence were not only working for the Ward campaign but running it; Stockton as chief strategist, Lawrence as press secretary. (Vox reached out to both Stockton and Lawrence multiple times for comment, but neither had responded as of press time.)
Stockton, a former forklift operator and competitive poker player turned Tea Party operative, worked with conservative Super PACs aimed at unseating congressional from Democrat Harry Reid to Republican Lisa Murkowski before arriving at Breitbart News in March 2014. There, he worked alongside (and started dating) Lawrence, who arrived at Breitbart a month after Stockton. Both worked for Breitbart until December 2016, when they left to join the America First Project, an effort launched by another former Breitbart staffer, Patrick Howley.
The America First Project, which has a Facebook page and a largely inactive YouTube channel, describes itself as a "grassroots organization to advance the America First agenda and make America great again!" Stockton became president and CEO of the America First Project, Lawrence vice president, as well as spokesperson and senior strategist.
According to Stockton and Lawrence, they began advising Ward in mid-2016, when she ran against Republican Sen. John McCain, and joined her 2018 primary campaign in April 2017. In interviews with their former employer this past summer, Stockton and Lawrence described Ward as the only candidate who could fully enact Trump's message on the ground in Arizona — and stand up to the "liberal media." "The attacks from fake news have only served to rally people to our campaign," Lawrence told Breitbart. "With every smear from places like CNN, our campaign only gets stronger."
But that was August. In an interview with the Daily Beast last week, Lawrence said, “When we walked into the [Ward] campaign, we thought that Kelli was up to … drain the swamp, and after a while, we saw her bringing in people from the political consultant class.” In a matter of weeks, the candidate backed by not only Sean Hannity and Bannon but Donald Trump himself, seems to have somehow fallen short by the measure of members of her own campaign staff.
(Vox reached out to both the Ward and Flake campaigns but did not receive a response by press time.)
Donald Trump might not even be Trumpian enough
Stockton and Lawrence's decision to leave the Ward campaign will likely have little impact on Ward's campaign — as of October 13, she leads Flake by at least 16 percentage points.
But the shift is indicative of a larger and more important phenomenon: To be an adequately Trumpian candidate for political office is more difficult than simply receiving support from Donald Trump. In fact, even Trump might not be adequately Trumpian.
In Alabama's GOP primary, Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Luther Strange lost handily to former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who led Strange for weeks. Some of Moore's supporters were confused by Trump's decision not to immediately endorse him, telling the Washington Examiner in mid-September that Trump was perhaps "just trying to fit in a little bit, trying to work both sides."
It's not the first time Trump proved himself to be insufficiently #MAGA. After his decision to bomb an airbase in Syria earlier this year, Dustin Stockton (in his role as president of the America First Project) told Vanity Fair that "America First" wasn't inherently a pro-Trump term: "we’re the America First Project, not the Support Donald Trump project."
But the real energy behind "anti-establishment" candidates might not be Bannon or Breitbart. Bannon did celebrate the Moore victory over Strange as the launch of a “revolution” within the Republican Party — a revolution he hopes to both lead and control — but as National Review's Jonah Goldberg pointed out on Friday, Bannon's reputation as a political kingmaker might be more sound than fury. In 2014 and 2016, Bannon-supported candidates like Wisconsin's Paul Nehlen, Kansas’s Milton Wolf, and Tennessee's Joe Carr all lost to "establishment" candidates. (Paul Nehlen ran against House Speaker Paul Ryan and lost by 68 percent.)
In fact, the power behind Trumpism isn't even Donald Trump. It's a Republican base that got its first taste of power during the Tea Party insurgency that Stockton helped launch in 2009 and 2010 — a Republican base that remains disappointed and increasingly enraged at what they see as a lack of action on their most critical priorities. It's a Republican base that's furious, for example, at John McCain for torpedoing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and at Jeff Flake for not standing with Trump, but now, also seemingly angry with Trump himself for not living up to his campaign promises.
"Voters are rightly upset with politicians who make promises and don't keep them," Caruso told Vox. "That said, a certain segment of the voting populace thinks anything other than exactly what they want is a ‘betrayal’ or ‘surrender.’ They don't appreciate the value of the incremental win." He added that this dynamic posed a major problem. "What we're seeing is a real possible split in the GOP. It's something that I thought months ago might not be possible."
David Leach writes as "The Strident Conservative" at RedState.com. In a post on Thursday, he wrote, "as we have witnessed since the inauguration, the White House was seized by the Javanka (Jared and Ivanka) Liberation Army where the few conservatives within the administration were taken hostage and forced to either embrace Donald Trump or be terminated. And it looks like Kelli Ward is ready to become an ally of the JLA to do her part." His ultimate conclusion? The GOP is dead, and conservatives should find a new political party.
As a Republican candidate in a red state, Kelli Ward has done everything right. She ran to John McCain's right in 2016, and is running against an unpopular Republican senator as a potential partner to a popular (with Republicans) president. She is running on the promise that she will enact the policies and promises of Trumpism — nationalist populism, complete with a border wall with Mexico — even if Donald Trump himself doesn't. But two of her highest-ranking campaign staff are now decrying Ward as just another politician, unable at best (unwilling at worst) to go to Washington and get the real work of Making America Great Again done, swamp draining and all. Because of course she is.
The black-and-white rhetoric of talk radio and Fox News doesn't actually get spending bills passed or the government funded or abortion banned or undocumented immigrants removed. It takes real legislation, with the help of the dreaded "political consultant class," to get things done on the Hill. And the vast majority of the voting priorities of today's GOP are virtually impossible to pass through Congress (see: Obamacare repeal), even with Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate.
But that's not what Republican voters want to hear right now. And what they do want to hear isn't what Steve Bannon, Kelli Ward, or even Donald Trump can give them. Trumpism has turned the Republican Party upside down. It might soon do the same to Trump's closest allies.
Jane Coaston is a journalist and writer based in Washington, DC, who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN, and the Ringer.
Correction: This piece originally implied Lisa Murkowski is a Democrat. She is a Republican.