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“The important thing to know about Steve Bannon’s podcast is that it is one of the most popular shows on Apple’s platform. It has tens of millions of downloads.” So reports Isaac Arnsdorf, who covers national politics for ProPublica. “It has really become a watering hole for far-right figures.” The podcast, titled Bannon’s War Room, has a lot of guests who are loyal to Donald Trump. Many of them believe the 2020 election was stolen. And with these guests, Bannon has started promoting a novel idea, encouraging his listeners to flood the very lowest levels of the Republican party. Says Arnsdorf: “The idea behind this strategy is to take over the party from the bottom up by taking all these precinct positions, which are often not contested and just there for the taking.” These precinct positions Bannon has been encouraging his listeners to fill go by a lot of names: election inspector, precinct committeeman. Arnsdorf simply calls them “precinct officers.” They are party functionaries—for both Republicans and Democrats—and their responsibilities vary state by state. These precinct workers make up the base: They knock on doors, get out the vote, support the people leading the party in D.C. But they also have these powers: Sometimes they can choose who will run for statewide office, and other times, they nominate the people who oversee elections. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Arnsdorf about Steve Bannon’s influential podcast, the strategist’s newest flood-the-zone initiative, and how some die-hard Republicans want to make sure they don’t lose the presidency again. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Arnsdorf: The key thing to understand is that the county party, the local party officials, have direct influence on the election administration through these formal mechanisms. Every state’s a little different, but that’s the basic idea. To give you some examples: In Wisconsin, the election is run by the county clerk, but the poll workers who are technically called election inspectors are nominated by the county party. The law says that the county clerk has to hire the party’s poll workers if they’re provided. In the past, this really hasn’t been an issue because the parties like basically didn’t bother. But now it’s different. Now county chairs are going, “Wait a minute, we need to stack these positions, we need to send the county clerk really long lists of hardcore Republicans so that we can make sure we’ve got people in the precincts running the polls who are looking out for fraud.”
Mary Harris: I know that ProPublica contacted GOP leaders in 65 key counties. Can you lay out the basics of exactly what you found when you called those people?
So we contacted local party officials in the most electorally significant states: Florida, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. We asked them how many new precinct workers—or whatever they call it—they’ve had since February, which is when Bannon started promoting this. The total, in aggregate, was more than 8,500. I was looking at the Democrats as a control group so we could compare past increases in Republican and Democratic precinct officers. In Maricopa County, Arizona, which is more than half the state’s population, there was official data for both parties. And you could actually see how the Republican line on the chart just shoots up and the Democratic line is flat.
When did you realize that this conservative media ecosystem was involved? Like, when did you start hearing people say, “I heard about this on Bannon’s podcast”?
We called around to the county party chairs in important counties in these competitive states. And we just asked them, Are you getting a ton of people calling you asking to be precinct chairs? Because that’s a little weird, right? The average voter has never heard of a precinct chair, much less is interested in being one. And for the most part, the answer was yes: “We’ve never seen anything like this before.” Sometimes this was as confusing to the county chair as it was to anyone else.
My favorite story you told was a guy from Fort Worth who said people kept calling, asking about “precinct committeemen.” And he was like, What are you talking about? We don’t have those here. And then he realized where they were coming from.
Right. That was sort of a shibboleth because precinct committeeman is what they called it on Bannon’s podcast. But in Texas, the term they actually use is precinct chair. So that was a tell that they were coming from Bannon’s show.
It’s interesting because this idea didn’t seem to come from Bannon himself, but from Daniel Schultz, who’s from Arizona and had been beating this drum of low level positions for a little while. Do we know how this guy bends Bannon’s ear?
Yeah, Bannon didn’t come up with this himself. He kind of plucked it out of obscurity and called up this guy who’s been saying the same thing for more than a decade. No one ever listened until Bannon gave him the platform. He’s an insurance lawyer and a precinct committeeman—he got involved in the party at the local level in 2007, and he clearly became fascinated with this possibility that if lots of people like him did what he did … he signed up his kids to do this, eventually. But if lots of people—
Yeah, when they are of age. And if lots more people like him would go out and become precinct committeemen, then they could take over the Republican Party. Schultz calls it the most powerful position in politics.
I think it’s important that Daniel Schultz started as a Tea Party person. I remember a decade there was so much focus on these town halls, when people from Washington would go home and be confronted by Tea Party activists. I’ve heard some people talk about how after Jan. 6, after this past election, people weren’t seeing that. But what you’re laying out here makes it seem to me that, actually, we’re just seeing something different: a focus not on the elected officials, but on the process itself.
The elected officials are directly accountable to the party. When a member of Congress or senator or presidential candidate is planning a trip or event in some place, they’re going to reach out to the county chair in that county for help organizing that. Or, if they want to take the electorate’s temperature on something, the county chair is going to be one of their first calls. Dan Schultz’s case is that if you want these politicians to actually pay attention, you introduce yourself as a precinct committeeman and then they have to listen, because you literally are the party.
The Tea Party, at least at the beginning, was about forming groups and going to meetings. Eventually those people knocked down the wall and came into the Republican Party. But it was initially about a parallel structure attacking the establishment. This is different. It is the party organization itself.
What do we know about the intentions of folks who are taking these positions?
Well, what we know is what they what they say, which is that they’re there because they believe the last election was stolen, and they believe their activism and participation in this role is going to prevent that from happening again. What do they mean by that? They’re talking about new voting restrictions like we’ve seen in Georgia and Texas. They’re talking about audits like the one in Arizona. They’re talking about becoming poll workers themselves so they can be in the polling place on the lookout for “fraud.” They’re talking about appointing people like themselves to the board that supervises the local election, and they’re talking about getting rid of the RINOS.
The lesson that they took away from 2020 is that the Democrats committed widespread “fraud”—but really, that the reason Trump isn’t president anymore is because the Republican Party let him down. They sold him out because they knew that the election was “stolen” and they didn’t stop it. They’re talking about people like Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state in Georgia; the county and state officials in Arizona who certified results; the state legislators who didn’t appoint Electoral College votes for Trump; the members of Congress who didn’t object on Jan. 6. The purpose of taking over the party is to get rid of everyone like that so that next time there won’t be anyone in the way. There won’t be any Brad Raffensperger.
How did the people who’d been doing these county election jobs for a long time feel about this sudden surge in interest in what they do?
So some of these county chairs we talked to were themselves new in their position—they had been elected on this wave of newcomers who are dedicated to this movement. So they are obviously thrilled. Some of them were incumbents, had had been there before and were happy to see this this surge of enthusiasm. If they’re going to work for the party, the workers are happy to have them. Some others more were more ambivalent about it: They wanted to figure out a way to harness the grassroots enthusiasm to win in 2022 and 2024. At the other end of the spectrum, there were people who really did not like what they were seeing, who did not think that this was a good way forward for the party or, frankly, for American democracy. But the reality is that those people were mostly on their way out.
And there are plenty of newly activated conservatives looking to take over for this old guard, remaking the Republican Party in the process.
I would point to the recent meeting of a local GOP faction in North Carolina, in one of these counties that’s had a flood of newcomers. There was an appearance by Rep. Madison Cawthorn. As part of the event, he autographed a shotgun that they were raffling off. Just a few minutes after this, he said, “If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place—and it’s bloodshed.” The people in the audience cheered. And someone shouted out, “When are you going to call us to Washington again?” People laughed and clapped, and he said, “We are actively working on that one.”
Many of the people who are embracing this strategy of “invading” the party, they’re pretty clear when they use language like that. It seems like a lot of the people who are talking about this are also toying with these ideas of violence in a pretty alarming way.
Bannon is making comparisons to the opening battles of the Revolutionary War. He’s talking about taking over the party village by village, which has this guerrilla warfare sound to it. But we’re already seeing it go beyond implied violence to, if not actual violence, the threat of violence.
That threat of violence almost became a reality in Clark County, Nevada, because a group of Proud Boys decided to get involved with their local precinct.
This started happening when the Proud Boys were getting more involved and holding rallies and protests outside counting sites. What changed this year is that a few members of the Proud Boys started going to local Republican Party meetings and recruiting other people who were not themselves Proud Boys but were looking to become new members of the local party, with the goal of replacing that party’s moderate leadership with someone who worked on the Trump campaign and was a leader of the effort to overturn the election results in Nevada. What ended up happening is the existing party leadership could not hold a vote twice because they felt it was too dangerous—that if they didn’t admit the members the Proud Boys had signed up or if things didn’t go the Proud Boys’ way, they couldn’t guarantee everyone’s security. Now it’s in because the slate the Proud Boys were supporting ended up holding their own election.
You quoted the county chair, who was at this meeting where people were pushing to get in and police were there, and he said, “I’m done covering for you awful people,” and left and then resigned.
Yeah, and he’s one of these guys who doesn’t think the election was stolen, much less that there’s any point in fighting about it, and he doesn’t like seeing his party filled with Proud Boys.
I’m wondering, for the party leaders you spoke to who were worried about the ideologies of the new workers, how are they thinking about their response? Are they thinking about counterorganizing or adding screening procedures?
I did talk with a district chair in Arizona who screens. But she can get overruled by higher-up officials in the county party. So there’s a limit to what she can do on her own to keep out people she views as unhelpful. What she’s really hoping is that cooler minds prevail and that this is not what moderates and independents want, so Republicans who actually want to win are going to be more focused on trying to appeal to them.
It seems to me the solution has to come from Republicans themselves sorting out who they are, what they stand for, what they’ll tolerate. If you look to Washington, for instance, you don’t see a lot of people calling out the big lie, and when they do, they’re bumped out of the party, like Liz Cheney. It seems to me that this issue you’re talking about with the grassroots, whatever happens next will need to be sorted out with Republican voters.
I think this is another way of understanding why Liz Cheney got pushed out of House leadership for voting to impeach Trump, and why so many Republican members of Congress voted to object to the results on Jan. 6: Their constituency is the party organization, and the party organization at the local level in their districts is increasingly filled with people who believe the election was stolen.