1. Luther Strange Lost Just As Much As Roy Moore Won
Roy Moore is a popular man in Alabama, and he ran a solid campaign that built on his strong level of support. Much of that additional support came from people fed up with the corruption surrounding former Gov. Robert Bentley. Bentley resigned in April, after pleading guilty to charges related to his attempted coverup of his betrayal of his wife. The state House had just launched impeachment proceedings when he finally stepped down. He’d been funneling money around and using state law enforcement officials to hide his infidelity with a staffer. His wife of more than 50 years left him. His children expressed their disgust with him.
What does this have to do with Luther Strange? Well, Bentley appointed Strange to fill Jeff Sessions’ former seat. He had been attorney general and had previously called on the Alabama State Legislature to suspend an impeachment investigation into Bentley’s misdeeds. That he was rewarded with a seat in the U.S. Senate didn’t go over well with voters. Many thought the appointment from the corrupt governor was itself corrupt.
An Alabama voter sent me a note last week after I appeared on “Special Report” discussing the race that explained this dynamic a bit:
Just heard your comments about the upcoming runoff next week in Alabama, and I feel compelled to tell you that you are absolutely correct! It is well know here that Luther Strange (then Ala State AG) made a deal with former Governor Bentley to recommend all charges against him be dropped in exchange for Sessions’ senate seat. That is so despicable! Since I have always found Roy Moore to be an almost comic book character, I am between a rock and a hard place. Those of us here who pay attention have no good alternatives at this point. And it has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.
While Moore has a strong base of support, he might not have fared as well against a strong candidate unaffiliated with Bentley. In fact, Strange’s worst mistake might have been taking the Bentley appointment instead of just running in the Republican primary as attorney general.
2. Trump Supporters Showed Independence
That note from the Alabama voter brings us to the second point: this was not a Donald Trump referendum. He did, for reasons only he can explain, side with Mitch McConnell in endorsing Strange. He tweeted for him, talked about him, and campaigned for him, albeit half-heartedly there at the end when he saw the writing on the wall. But Alabama voters didn’t see this as a referendum on Trump and if they did, one could make the case that they supported Moore as being more consistent with the Trump agenda. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon told Moore rally-goers that a vote for Moore was a vote for Trump.
Trump critics definitely see Strange’s defeat as a defeat for Trump. To quote BuzzFeed: “Big Luther was a big loss for President Donald Trump and the Republican establishment.” Another politico wrote:
It was most definitely a brushback to Trump, but it was one he needed. Trump once bragged that he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t desert him. The media tend to agree with his assessment of his base. But this race does show that Trump supporters are more resistant to the swamp than Trump showed himself to be in this race. He will ignore that at his peril.
President Trump seemed to recognize that he’d misjudged the race when he said at Friday’s rally that he might have made a mistake in endorsing Strange and would support Moore in the general. Either way, Trump supporters showed that they are willing to deviate from Trump’s explicit calls to action.
3. Republican Voters Are Done With the Old Way of Doing Business
While this was a race with Alabama-specific dynamics that may not have been much of a referendum on Trump, it’s not wrong to say there was a bit of a referendum on Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and what he represents to the Republican voter. “Mitch McConnell has had a bad week, and it’s only Tuesday,” political consultant Jordan Gehrke wrote. “There is blood in the water now, and more conservative candidates who are hostile to the establishment are primed to step forward.”
McConnell invested heavily in the Strange race. He likes to get involved on behalf of candidates he thinks will fit in best in the Senate. At best, the idea is that Republican voters need to be protected from bad candidates. People making that argument usually cite establishment opposition to the candidacies of Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada. Less remarked upon are the failures of establishment candidates such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Rick Berg of North Dakota, and Connie Mack of Florida.
And it’s worth remembering McConnell initially worked against the candidacies of Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Ben Sasse.
Establishment party figures are not a bad thing, but in recent years that term has been used to mean a particular type of crony who can get along well with lobbyists. Republican voters know what establishment Republican politicians are like. They claim to be conservative until they show up in the Senate and fail to repeal Obamacare or stop funding the country’s largest abortion corporation.
Moore is in no danger of that. He says what he believes and he doesn’t care what anybody thinks about it, whether the topic is the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn, opposition to abortion, concern about sharia, or opposition to redefining marriage.
4. NeverTrump Should Not Rejoice
While most pundits think Strange’s failure is bad for Trump, it’s really bad for NeverTrump and other critics. There is a mindset in DC that Trump is a rare disruptive blip, and that once he is taken care of or defeated, everything will return to normal.
Alabama is just the latest example that shows that the disruption that is happening is so much bigger than Trump. The voters are simply sick and tired of how DC is doing business, and they’re willing to do quite a bit to send that message. In retrospect, the defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia back in 2014 was something of a canary in the coal mine. Republican voters have been trying to get party elites to wake up to their frustration for many years now. They launched the Tea Party, they have ousted members of leadership, they have voted for Trump as president. Now they’ve selected Moore, known for his extreme views, over the establishment candidate.
A smart Republican establishment would pause to consider how recalcitrant they should be to the strong stated views of the people they claim to represent.
5. Senate Shaping Up To Be Very Different In 2020
Moore will presumably win the special election in December, since Alabama is now a pretty solid Republican state. Trump received 63 percent of the vote in 2016.
Yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee announced he would not seek re-election. In a few years, the U.S. Senate could lack not just him but a slew of other men and women nearing retirement age, or moving on to other opportunities. That list might include Sens. John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Jim Inhofe, Thad Cochran, Pat Roberts, Susan Collins, Mike Enzi, Lamar Alexander, and others.
Moore himself is 70 years old, and might face a tough primary in just two years, but the Senate conference is clearly changing and Republicans should think about how to best shape it to their advantage.