COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As conservative Republicans reel from Tuesday's loss in Alabama by Roy Moore, the candidate picked by former White House strategist Steve Bannon to fill Jeff Sessions' Senate seat, Republicans and Democrats alike are questioning Bannon's influence in horserace politics. That includes a race in South Carolina where one of the front-runners, Catherine Templeton, has aligned herself with Bannon and praises the Brietbart News chief as the "voice of the rest of us."
President Donald Trump — who initially backed another GOP candidate before ultimately siding with Moore over Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama — has already waded into South Carolina's contest, backing Gov. Henry McMaster's bid for a first full term. That sets up a primary showdown between McMaster and Templeton, the former state labor chief, which could mirror the GOP contest in Alabama that led to Moore's nomination and ultimate defeat.
"There is always a danger when as a politician, you try to associate yourself in the public mind with certain other individuals," state Sen. Tom Davis, a libertarian-leaning Republican who mulled a bid for governor himself, told The Associated Press on Wednesday, remarking on Templeton's alliance. "You can't cherry pick. You have to then say, 'Well I like these things about him, but I don't like that.' That's the danger."
Bannon, who has been wading into state-level politics since leaving the White House earlier this year, has focused on picking off Senate Republicans he sees as stodgy establishment fixtures in favor of candidates he views as friendly to the Trump administration.
But he's also been, to some extent, part of Templeton's campaign apparatus in her challenge to McMaster for South Carolina's GOP gubernatorial nod. Templeton has been framing herself as an establishment-challenging outsider, the same sort of construct that Bannon has been seeking in his chosen candidates.
Templeton has maintained a friendship with Bannon since late 2016, when they met while she was being vetted for a Trump administration slot. Last month, she introduced him at an event at The Citadel.
Prior to that, Templeton made waves when, in an October radio interview, she called criticism of her ties to Bannon "a marker of liberal outrage for not getting their way." Ahead of his Citadel appearance, Bannon's Breitbart News site ran side-by-side photos of the two, linking to radio comments in which Templeton called Bannon "brilliant" and "the voice of the rest of us."
Those remarks brought Templeton flack, primarily from Democrats who painted her as a disciple of the so-called alt-right movement, in which Bannon's Breitbart News is popular. But Templeton stood by them.
Templeton opted not to comment for this story.
Gearing up for a gubernatorial primary of their own, South Carolina's Democrats were energized Wednesday by Jones' victory in Alabama. State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, seen by some as a rising star in South Carolina's Democratic circles, said she viewed Bannon's support as perhaps effective behind the scenes but unlikely to do much to inspire voters here.
"In politics, I think people like Bannon are effective in the shadows, not as a political motivator with the sun shining on him," Norrell said. "With all that we know about him, having his endorsement may do as much harm as it does good, even in a Republican primary."
Trav Robertson, chairman of South Carolina's Democrats, said his party's victory in Alabama, as well as a special election U.S. House win last month in Virginia — where Bannon also endorsed the GOP candidate — show Democrats in the South have momentum that could roll right into this very red state.
"Those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it," Robertson said. "And you don't get any more southern than South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama. And Virginia and Alabama have clearly rejected the views of Steve Bannon."