Roy Moore’s convincing win Tuesday in Alabama’s Republican primary runoff for a U.S. Senate seat put the GOP establishment on notice. Moore, an outsider candidate who vowed to take on the Washington status quo, easily beat his opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, who was backed by President Donald Trump and groups allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Moore is now the heavy favorite to win Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat when he squares off against Democrat Doug Jones in the December general election. Here’s what we learned from Tuesday’s closely watched race.
More uncertainty in the Senate
Moore, a controversial former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, will add an element of uncertainty to the McConnell-led Senate Republican caucus, assuming he wins in December, as is widely expected. (Republicans have held both U.S. Senate seats in Alabama since 1997).
It’s too early to know how Moore would vote on big issues, but there are already indications he could be a problem for McConnell, whose caucus holds a slim 52-vote majority.
Last week, the Moore campaign said he wouldn’t vote for the Senate Republicans’ latest health care plan unless it was a “full repeal” of the Affordable Care Act. The stance put Moore in line with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who opposed the failed Graham-Cassidy bill on similar grounds. Moore could fall in line with leadership once he’s in office, of course. But the fact that McConnell can’t count on his vote could make it harder for Senate Republicans to pass major legislation, at a time when they’re facing mounting pressure from Mr. Trump to score a win ahead of the 2018 midterm election.
Trump took a gamble, and lost
Presidents typically avoid wading into divisive primary fights. (Former President Barack Obama, for example, waited until the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was over to endorse Hillary Clinton). Trump took the opposite approach by backing Strange and campaigning for him in the final days of the race. The move made some sense, given that Trump’s success depends in part on McConnell’s ability to push legislation through the Senate. But it was also a risky move, with a large potential downside if Trump’s candidate lost. Moore’s win was a setback for Trump and McConnell, plain and simple. After it appeared Moore would win Tuesday night, three recent tweets in support of Strange were deleted from Trump’s Twitter account.
Can Trump shrug it off?
Conventional wisdom holds that Trump lost some of his “political clout” by backing the loser in the Alabama race. But Trump is adept at shrugging off setbacks by deflecting blame, a tactic he has used repeatedly in blaming Republicans in Congress for failing to act on health care and other issues. The strategy has backfired on occasion since Trump took office. But the Alabama primary was largely about politics, not policy, and Trump is at his best in the role of candidate or campaigner-in-chief. He is deeply popular in Alabama, and there is little reason to assume that will change after Moore’s win.
The reasons voters gave for their decisions on Tuesday were telling. “I voted for Strange. I’m a Trump voter. Either one is going to basically do the Trump agenda, but since Trump came out for Luther, I voted for Luther,” John Lauer told the Associated Press. Others said they voted for Moore because of his anti-Washington message. There was no early indication of widespread anger with Trump among conservatives for his decision to endorse the establishment candidate. In the end, the endorsement may not have much of an impact with Trump’s conservative base.
McConnell took a big hit
For McConnell, Moore’s win could have longer-lasting repercussions, above and beyond the issue of Moore’s potential impact on policy in the Senate. Moore vowed to oppose McConnell and other establishment figures in Washington. His win was a reminder of just how unpopular Congress, and congressional leaders, are with voters. Sixty-nine percent of voters disapprove of how Republicans are doing in Congress, according to a recent poll; 57 percent aren’t happy with Democrats, either. Next year, McConnell could be a major liability for Republican incumbents seeking re-election.
Get ready for a wild 2018 GOP primary season
There are 34 Senate seats up for re-election in 2018. Of those, 25 are held by Democrats and independents who caucus with Democrats — and 10 are in states that Trump won last year. It’s a good map for Republicans, who only have to defend nine seats. Even so, the primary season will likely get ugly, with plenty of fights between GOP incumbents and outsiders like Moore. His win proved that incumbents are vulnerable, even if they’re backed by the president and the rest of the Republican establishment.