After Alabama, GOP anti-establishment wing declares all-out war in 2018
The GOP primary victory by conservative firebrand Roy Moore over Sen. Luther Strange could also produce a stampede of Republican retirements in the coming months and an energized swarm of challengers.
It marked yet another humiliation for the Washington-based Republican establishment, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose allies pumped millions of dollars into the race to prop up Strange and reassure his colleagues that they could survive the Trump era.
Moore’s win, however, also demonstrates the real political limitations of Trump, who endorsed “Big Luther” at McConnell’s urging and staged a rally for Strange in Huntsville, Ala., just days before the primary. The outcome is likely to further fray Trump’s ties to Republicans in Congress, many of whom now fear that even his endorsement cannot protect them from voter fury.
“People think about those things all the time up here,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), referring to unease in elected Republican ranks. “A lot of them won’t be run out of town — they want to stay and fight for their beliefs. But they know Moore’s supporters will come after them anyway.”
The tremors began before the polls closed in Alabama. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced on Tuesday afternoon that he would not seek reelection in 2018, dogged by complaints from conservatives in his state over his criticism of Trump. A number of Corker’s potential primary rivals had already begun talks with wealthy donors.
“If you’re an incumbent, you have to assume the wind is against you,” said consultant Tom Ingram, a longtime Corker adviser. “If you do run, you take nothing for granted and leave nothing on the table. You start out with one big strike against you: You’re an incumbent Republican senator.”
For Democrats, the prospect of further retirements and revived GOP infighting has sparked talk of competing for Senate seats previously thought out of play. That is particularly true with candidates like Moore, long considered a fringe political figure who has, among other things, expressed doubts about whether former president Barack Obama was born in the United States and referred this month to “reds and yellows” in remarks on race. On the eve of the election, Moore, wearing a white cowboy hat and a black leather vest, pulled a handgun out of his pocket and flashed it at a rally.
“It’s an acid flashback to 2010,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk-radio host, referring to the year when seasoned GOP figures lost Senate primaries across the country as incendiary conservatives charged forward.
“It’s almost as if there is a compulsion in the party to nominate the most ‘out there’ candidate just to show you can, with no concern about what that means for the rest of the party,” Sykes said. “Republicans — and that means Trump, too — have unleashed something they can’t control.”
Hard-line challengers to Senate Republicans seized on the fall of Strange, who had been boosted by Trump and millions in outside Republican spending, as a sign of how the clamor of anti-establishment forces like Breitbart News — chaired by former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon — could empower them, regardless of whether Trump rallies behind sitting senators.
“People everywhere are outraged with the swamp, but there has been hesitation in some states among people who are thinking about it. They wondered whether these senators can be beat. This changes all of that,” said Danny Tarkanian, a GOP businessman running against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
Possible foils to other Republican senators facing reelection next year described Moore’s insurgent grass-roots campaign as a model for how they could frame their own bids: He embraced Trump but encouraged the president’s supporters to lash out at McConnell and the party’s leadership.
“I was with Bannon last night, talking it through, and what’s happened in Alabama increases the likelihood that I jump in,” said Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who is considering challenging Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), speaking Tuesday before polls closed. “It’s a race that has repercussions across the country.”
McDaniel, who nearly toppled Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in a messy 2014 primary election, added, “It’s an incredibly exciting time. I admire President Trump but people will reach their own conclusions. They’re going to vote against those who play the D.C. games. That means they’ll go against McConnell and against Roger Wicker, who is part of the established order.”
With Corker retiring, seven Senate Republicans are expected to run for reelection next year: Wicker, Heller, Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and John Barrasso (Wyo.).
For months, only three of them — Flake, Heller and Wicker — were widely seen as vulnerable to primary upsets. But in the wake of Alabama, GOP operatives are no longer ruling out an expanded map of targets for Bannon and his associates, such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who stormed behind Moore’s candidacy to reassert her influence within the party.
“They try to say you’re off the reservation any time there’s a tough vote,” Shelby said.