What the GOP can learn from the Alabama Senate race

JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now at Roy Moore's win, at the Republican push for tax reform, and another failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and what all of that means for the future of the GOP, with Tom Davis, a former member of Congress who headed up the committee in charge of electing more Republicans to the House. And Matt Schlapp, he's the chairman of the American Conservative Union and the former White House political director under President George W. Bush.

And, for the record, we note that Matt's wife, Mercedes Schlapp, is a senior communications adviser to President Trump.

And we welcome both of you back to the "NewsHour."

Tom Davis, I'm going to start with you.

What happened in Alabama? The candidate the president, the Republican establishment was backing lost to Roy Moore, who may be the most conservative candidate to run for a Senate seat in this modern era.

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS, R-Va.: He's certainly an exotic candidate, but there were some Alabama characteristics to this race, I think, that were peculiar to Alabama.

The way Senator Strange was appointed by a governor who they felt he'd underinvestigated, I think that blew up on him. I think, had Luther Strange run basically not as the incumbent and appointed by that governor, you might have had a different result.

I wouldn't read too much into this election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: I think this was a very Alabama-centric dynamic in this race that defeated Strange, who was appointed by a governor who ended up resigning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matt Schlapp, do you agree with that, that it may not have a wider meaning? And what do you think it means for the general election there?

MATT SCHLAPP, American Conservative Union: Well, to continue this full disclosure, I also have to let you know that Tom Davis' son used to work for me, so I don't know what's going on here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATT SCHLAPP: But who is a great young man.

But I think that this election in Alabama actually is indicative of a very big trend that's going on within Republican politics. I agree with Tom completely that there are reasons why this election went the way it did, and it did have to do with what was seen as a corrupt bargain about the former governor and the fact that Strange was an appointed candidate, and that he got so imprinted with the leadership in the Senate.

None of those things were positive. I think the big trend we have to understand is that Republicans, it's not that ideological. It's not really moderate vs. conservative right now. Republicans out there in the country, they're just so frustrated that, on the big, central issues, they don't see Republican majorities in the House and the Senate fulfilling the promises, starting, number one, with Obamacare.

And they have got to get taxes done. If they stub their toe on that, we are going to be in a very, very bad situation as a party, because it's going to look like we're not delivering on the promises we have made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how big a setback, number one, Tom Davis, is this for the president, for Mitch McConnell, and what is it potentially going to mean for other Senate races?

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, it's a shot across the bow at the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate that they better get their act together, and exercise some teamwork and get some things passed.

What hasn't been talked about — and there were a couple of special elections yesterday in state legislatures. Republicans lost a state senate seat in Florida, and they lost a statehouse seat in New Hampshire that was a heavy, strong Republican seat.

What has happened is, you're finding the Republican vote being depressed at this point. Republicans are kind of down on their party and Democrats are really juiced at this point, have a lot of excitement.

And that can really skew turnout in favor of Democrats, if the Republicans don't do what Matt Schlapp said they need to do, and that is pass some of these things that Republicans elected them to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this, Matt? How big a setback for the establishment, is what I mean?

MATT SCHLAPP: It's big.

And once again, I don't think it's as ideological as some like to portray it. Yes, Roy Moore is a very conservative guy, and he's a strong Christian conservative, but really the dynamic in Alabama was, who could be closer to Trump? Both Luther Strange and Judge Moore, they were running as — each one was running as the Trump candidate, even though Trump endorsed Luther Strange.

So, it's really — that's not really the dynamic here. The dynamic that's problematic across this country is that if the Republican majority is seen as failing to deliver, we're going to have more losses. And I agree with what Tom is saying, which is, I really think this is a critical moment for the Republican Party.

They assume that all these Republicans across the country are going to stand with them even when things are tough, but they will not if they see us unable — think about this, Judy. On these reconciliation votes, which is what all the health care votes have been so far and what this tax vote will be, what reconciliation means is, they can do it if they want just with Republican votes in the Senate.

Even on those votes, they failed to pull together as a conference to get to 50. That's quite a stunning problem, when you ran for seven-and-a-half years after attacking the Obama agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Tom Davis, is the message then to Republicans to keep moving farther to the right, or is it to think about working with Democrats?

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: I think Matt just made it clear they need to get things done. They need to try to solve…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how? By…

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: Look, I was in the House when we had five- and six-seat margins in the House, and we were able to pass legislation. It was almost as polarized as it is today.

But we functioned as a team. I think right now, some of these outside groups, some of the outside media get involved with this, and members aren't feeling a part of the Republican team. But they either hang together or they hang separately. Republicans have got to pass tax reform, and that is a must, or I think they're doomed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and whether it's tax reform or anything else, Matt, is the answer for Republicans, again, to lean more to the right, to bring in more Roy Moores, or is it to work across the aisle? The president said today he's prepared to work with Democrats on tax reform.

MATT SCHLAPP: Well, Judy, I obviously chair a group with conservative in its title. I am true-blue conservative. I want to see the Republican Conference in the Senate be conservative.

I also am a strong Republican. I'm a conservative first, a Republican second. But I want our Republican Party to be a national party. I want us to be able to win in red states and in blue states. And the only way we're going to accomplish that is if we can be competent at having the majority.

If you really think about it, Republicans do great — we're the anti-government party. We do great when we're out of power and we criticize those trying to grow a government and raise taxes. We are great at that. We excel at that. We prosecuted the case on Obamacare for seven-and-a-half years, and we did a sterling job. We got our message out.

You know what we weren't so good at? Coming up with what our alternative was. And that is the moment we are in now. We have to talk about our alternatives. And we have to be able to show that, at least on these Republican votes, that we all stand together on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

MATT SCHLAPP: Think about this. We actually can't stand together even on replacing Obamacare. That's quite a stunning statement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is the answer, Tom Davis, to elect more Roy Moores to the Senate?

(CROSSTALK)

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: No, look, the answer is — the wakeup call for Republicans is they need to work together as a team to get these passed.

If not, they are going to have to work with Democrats. And that's going to make some Republicans very unhappy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Roy Moore coming in, as somebody who likes to go his own way, is…

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: I think Roy Moore will part of the team on issues like tax reform.

I don't see him going off the reservation, a problem on those kind of issues. But the Senate is full of cats. It's like herding cats, and they just added another cat to the bag to herd.

But I think Roy Moore will be supportive of the president on most of these issues.

MATT SCHLAPP: Yes, I agree, Judy.

I want to answer your question, which is, the fact is, Alabama is a conservative state. Both Luther Strange and Roy Moore match up with the philosophy of Republican voters in the state. And that's what the Republican Party is going to be made up with. Some are going to be more conservative. Some are going to be less conservative.

But on the central issues of, are taxes too high and is government playing too big a role in your life, we should be able to unify on these questions?

And for people like Susan Collins, who have not been there, actually, the politics back home in her state are getting tougher, because even moderate Republicans back home in these states, they are antsy over the fact that we're not getting things done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the cat herding is under way.

And we will continue to watch it with Matt Schlapp and Tom Davis. Thank you both.

FORMER REP. TOM DAVIS: Thanks, Judy.

MATT SCHLAPP: Thanks, guys.

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