Steve Bannon acknowledged late Wednesday he never imagined campaigning outside of Buffalo just two weeks before Election Day.
Rep. Chris Collins’ 27th Congressional District was the safest Republican seat in New York State. Bannon had 15 or 20 other House of Representatives districts to worry about.
But following the congressman’s federal indictment on insider trading charges, the Collins district is now in play.
And any possibility of losing the House to the Democrats, he said, represents the ultimate threat to all that is near and dear to Bannon.
“This national election is about Donald Trump,” said one of the masterminds of Trump’s 2016 election, en route to his get-out-the-vote rally at the Jamison Road Volunteer Fire Company in Elma.
“All voters have to realize when they go into that voting booth is that it’s a proxy vote on the Trump presidency,” he added. “That’s my pitch — 100 percent.”
That’s what he told a crowd of approximately 350 in the fire hall — warning against a Democratic victory in November and its effect on the president’s agenda.
“They’re going to grind his administration to a halt,” he said of Trump.
Bannon told the crowd the Nov. 6 contest represents the president’s “first re-elect,” and that even with labels of “misogynist” or “racist” attached by opponents, they should wear them as a “badge of honor.”
“You guys are the backbone of this country,” he told the cheering crowd.
Collins — the candidate who perhaps stands to benefit most from encouragement from a key Trump figure — did not attend the rally organized by Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant who has been working on campaign issues this fall with Bannon. Neither did any other GOP candidate the event was designed to help, except for Assemblyman David J. DiPietro of East Aurora, who did not address the crowd and left early.
But in his conversation with The Buffalo News before arriving at the Elma fire hall, Bannon noted that everything depends on the 2018 midterm elections.
And, to him, "everything" means Trump.
The president now calls Bannon “Sloppy Steve” after his messy departure from the White House's inner circle in 2017. And he is derided in some circles as linked to far-right sentiment dominating much of the Republican Party.
But that’s not stopping him from roaming the country with his Citizens of the American Republic movement, aiming over the next 12 days to blunt the threat to GOP control of the House. He thinks his effort and others like it might work.
A year ago, he pointed out, Democrats envisioned winning 80 to 100 House seats as the Trump administration debuted in controversy after controversy. That’s why Speaker Paul Ryan decided to retire, he says. By the spring, that Democratic estimate had shrunk to maybe gaining 60 seats.
Events such as the controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh have changed everything, he said. He called the hearings an "accelerant."
“I think now it’s around 25 seats with the potential to pick off one or two we didn’t expect,” he said. “We could save the House by one or two seats. But if you support the Trump agenda, you’ve got to support the people who support the Trump agenda.”
That’s why he traveled to a packed firehouse in southern Erie County Wednesday, and why he is making similar appearances in other districts around the country. He made a point: Electing Nancy Pelosi or another Democrat to lead the House will result almost immediately in efforts to impeach the president.
He predicted a select committee of top House Democrats like Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters that will spark impeachment proceedings.
“They intend to field-strip the Trump administration,” he said.
That threat, he theorized, may prove a secret weapon for Republicans. As he pounds home what he views as the ultimate calamity, the mere suggestion of impeachment may galvanize a Trump base that previously had little interest in turning out for midterm elections in a booming economy, when many voters traditionally stay home.
Now, he sees voters influenced by talk radio and traditional get-out-the-vote efforts as supporting Republican candidates, even if a few — like Collins — could possibly go to jail.
“It’s a referendum on the president,” he said. “The Democrats will try to localize it, but that’s not relevant. Trump has permeated the culture. Heck, he’s permeated the popular culture.”
Bannon said he knows all about the problems facing Collins, calling them “very special circumstances.”
But he showed no interest in discussing them, or their effect on the race.
"I am just focused on districts where the Trump base is very strong, very vocal, very solid,” he said, noting his trip to Elma Wednesday and Staten Island Monday. “They just have to represent us. That’s all I’m going out to do.”
Protesters across Jamison Road at one time shouted loud enough for the crowd inside to hear, causing organizers to shut the doors. But Bannon told the crowd he felt they were free to express their opinion.
"I have no beef with them," he said.
Inside, it was a different story. Bannon found a friendly audience that heard remarks from Carl P. Paladino, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor, who offered one of the few mentions of Collins during the event.
Paladino urged the crowd to vote for Collins because he votes the right way.
As Bannon made his way to the fire hall after touching down at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga shortly after 4:30 p.m., musician Ricky Lee warmed up the crowd.
"Our country today is so divided," he said. "I think we have an opportunity to say we love our country."
Others had different views.
Richard Ford, of Amherst, greeted vehicles coming into the Jamison Fire Hall parking lot with fliers exhorting them to vote for Reform Party candidate Larry Piegza for the seat.
"While the whole purpose of the rally is to keep Republican control of Congress, I'm trying to tell people there's another way of doing that," said Ford.
"I'm afraid Steve (Bannon) is sometimes counterproductive. He went to Alabama and promoted a candidate that wasn't electable. It looks like he's doing the same thing here. Chris Collins isn't electable," Ford added.
A line about 75 people deep snaked outside the fire hall. Greg Sojka, of Lancaster, who was in that line, said he mainly came to listen, as he shared his grievances about the Democratic Party.
"It doesn't seem to be the Democratic Party of my mom and dad," Sojka said.
Declining to say whether or not he is a former Democrat, Sojka instead extolled the virtues of the Republican Party under President Trump.
"It's all about jobs and the stock market is booming. The unemployment rate is incredibly low. These are not bad things," Sojka said.
News Staff Reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.