It’s been a bad week for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans announced they did not have the votes to pass the Graham-Cassidy health spending bill, marking the second time in three months the GOP-controlled Senate has failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. Later that same day, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced he would not run for reelection next year.
And of course on Tuesday night conservative firebrand and former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore easily won a Republican runoff election to fill the seat left vacant by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He defeated—by 10 points—appointed senator Luther Strange, who not only had the backing of the GOP establishment but an in-person endorsement last week from President Trump at a rally in Huntsville.
This might all seem like insider baseball for political junkies, but the GOP’s terrible week is connected to a larger trend that bodes ill for the Republican Party. The Republican-controlled Senate’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal no doubt fueled anti-establishment sentiment among Republican primary voters in Alabama, leading to Moore’s election. That anti-establishment atmosphere certainly figured into Corker’s decision not to seek reelection (along with a GOP donor’s pledge last week to raise $4 million for Corker’s primary opponent).
But Moore’s victory is about more than congressional Republicans’ epic Obamacare failures. It’s also about the waning influence of the GOP establishment, and particularly McConnell, who has a history of meddling in the GOP primary process in an effort to keep the “wrong” sort of Republicans out of the conference.
Mitch McConnell Doesn’t Get GOP Voters
The Senate Leadership Fund, a super-PAC allied with McConnell that spent nearly $9 million trying to elect Strange and defeat Moore, all to no avail, underscores the extent to which mainstream Republicans like McConnell haven fallen out of favor with conservative voters. Ahead of Tuesday’s runoff election in Alabama, one poll showed that McConnell’s support made voters less likely to vote for Strange.
Moore is of course precisely the kind of anti-establishment conservative McConnell doesn’t want in the Senate. He was twice removed from the state Supreme Court—the first time in 2003, for refusing to obey a federal judge’s orders to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments, the second time in 2016, for directing county officials to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Although Trump endorsed Strange, Moore was by far the more Trumpian candidate, winning the support of ousted Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who is now on a crusade of sorts against incumbent Senate Republicans. “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,” Bannon said at Moore’s victory party Tuesday night.
The day before, Bannon rallied Moore’s supporters with the populist, anti-elitist rhetoric he used during Trump’s campaign: “They think you’re a pack of morons. They think you’re nothing but rubes. They have no interest at all in what you have to say, what you have to think or what you want to do. And tomorrow, you’re going to get an opportunity to tell them what you think of the elites who run this country.” But are the elites listening?
Maybe McConnell will get the message, although his history of backing establishment candidates suggests he won’t. After all, McConnell did everything in his power to keep Sen. Ben Sasse, now one of the Republican conference’s staunchest conservatives and beloved by many, from being elected in Nebraska in 2014. Freedom Pioneers, a super-PAC with strong ties to McConnell (much like the Senate Leadership Fund today) poured money into online and direct mail ads attacking Sasse.
At the time, The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway wrote, somewhat prophetically, “If McConnell doesn’t like Tea Party intransigence now, alienating conservative voters with unnecessary and heavy-handed intrusions into primary elections seems likely to foment even more intraparty disputes in the future.”
The Conservative Insurrection Is Here, Again
That was in 2014, but McConnell also initially worked against then-candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, who for the most part are now considered stalwart Senate conservatives and pillars of the conservative movement within the Republican Party. Does McConnell see the pattern? Does he remember the Tea Party insurrection of recent midterm election cycles and see the writing on the wall? Even without an insurrection, the Senate is shaping up to be much different in 2020 as aging establishment Republicans retire or choose not to face conservative primary challengers, and that should worry McConnell.
The Republican civil war has been dragging on for years, but this week’s trifecta of failures by GOP Senate leadership might be proof enough for disaffected Republican voters that the party simply can’t govern. After twice failing to repeal Obamacare or accomplish much else, if McConnell can’t manage to pass tax reform the Republican establishment might well be facing a Tea Party-type tidal wave of primary challenges in 2018 and 2020, perhaps against populist candidates like Moore.
If that means Republicans lose control of the Senate, it will be because GOP voters have so come to loathe McConnell and his men, they’ve concluded that the risk of losing the Senate is worth it. And they might be right.