Moore’s win spells trouble for GOP establishment in 2018
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Insurgent Roy Moore’s rout of incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama’s special election Tuesday has senior Republicans bracing for a wave of resource-draining primaries across the map that could undermine their best-laid plans to defeat Democrats in 2018.
Moore’s win — over an incumbent who benefited from millions of dollars in spending by a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — is certain to provide fuel for conservative challengers lining up to take on sitting senators in states like Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi.
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The result was a major setback for President Donald Trump, who went all-in for Strange in a state where the commander-in-chief is overwhelmingly popular. And it emboldened Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who said the Alabama race is the opening front in a pitched midterm war against GOP incumbents — and an opportunity to undermine his nemesis, McConnell. After the race was called, Bannon stood backstage with Moore as the victorious candidate prayed.
As he introduced Moore at Tuesday’s victory party, Bannon made clear that he was looking far beyond Alabama, which he called the start of a “revolution.”
“You’re going to see in state, after state, after state, people that follow the model of Judge Moore – that do not need to raise money from the elites, from the crony capitalists, from the fat cats in Washington, DC.,” said Bannon at Moore’s victory party. The race, he said, centered on the question of “who was sovereign — the people or the money — and Alabama answered today, the people.”
It’s “a huge win for the conservative movement, a great awakening,” said Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi Republican who is weighing a primary challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker. If the arch-conservative Moore could survive the McConnell-led offensive, McDaniel added, “then it can be said with confidence that the GOP establishment’s stranglehold on American politics is finally coming to an end. It should encourage conservative challengers all across the republic.”
McConnell himself has expressed profound worries about primaries and the impact they could have on his party’s 2018 prospects. In the weeks leading up to the Alabama runoff, the Republican leader privately predicted that a Moore win would stoke insurgent bids across the country.
It’s far from certain that other primary candidates can pull off what Moore did. The controversial former judge, who rose to national fame after defying a federal order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state building, is an established figure in Alabama who has a substantial following, particularly among social conservatives. And Strange’s appointment was clouded by controversy over questions of impropriety, which he denied.
But either way, Republican Party leadership has a big problem on its hands. McConnell has vowed to do everything in his power to help incumbents in primaries, but that protection effort is likely to cost the party many millions of dollars.
It’s disappointing news for the GOP hierarchy, which initially believed that it would spend the midterms on offense. Going into 2018, 23 Democratic-held Senate seats were up for grabs, compared to just nine Republican ones. Republicans were convinced they had a golden opportunity to expand the majority they won in 2014 and retained in 2016.
Conservative primary challengers are looking to tap into the same anti-establishment fever that drove Trump’s presidential campaign. And, just as it did during the 2016 campaign, there are early indications that it is taking a toll on the mainstream wing of the party. Exacerbating matters is the party’s trouble passing major legislation despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress.
On Tuesday, veteran GOP Sen. Bob Corker announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection next year. Corker had drawn a potential challenger in state Sen. Mark Green, who, like McDaniel, has been in talks with Bannon. After attending a get-out-the-vote rally for Moore on Monday, Bannon, Green, and McDaniel spoke until 1 a.m.
Bannon, who spent several days on the ground in Alabama, worked behind-the-scenes to marshal conservative support for Moore. In meetings with movement leaders, he cast the race as a defining battle between conservatives and the establishment. He urged them to focus not on House races for the time being, but on Senate primaries — and on launching a battle against McConnell.