While Mitch McConnell and his allies will try to blame conservatives for nominating Roy Moore, it’s important to remember that McConnell is the main reason Roy Moore was nominated.
The moment it was clear there would be a Special Election to replace Jeff Sessions, McConnell and his PAC, Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) declared they would back Luther Strange and vowed to spend millions on his behalf.
Strange was a flawed candidate from the jump. The circumstances around his appointment by scandal-ridden Governor Robert Bentley were sketchy at best, and rightly or wrongly, voters just never trusted him.
Looking back, an establishment candidate like Strange, beset by issues surrounding his appointment was never going to win a runoff in an anti-establishment state like Alabama–certainly not in the year after Donald Trump was elected.
Judge Roy Moore soon entered the race, followed by Mo Brooks, a conservative congressman from northern Alabama with a very solid voting record. A member of the House Freedom Caucus in the mold of Jeff Sessions, Brooks resonated with conservative grassroots. As I have outlined before, my firm was retained by Brooks and helped a pro-Moore superPAC in the runoff against Strange. (We did no work for Moore in the General Election.)
Determined to keep a Freedom Caucus member out of the Senate, McConnell and SLF swung into action with a little over a month to go, spending over four million dollars carpet-bombing Mo Brooks. They told everyone who would listen that they were going to destroy Brooks. They even hired consultants for a potential primary challenger in his house seat, just to intimidate him.
Why did they do all this?
Because they decided early that it would be easy to beat Roy Moore in a runoff. Unfortunately for them, Alabama voters didn’t really like the meddling by DC. This, coupled with the fact that Strange was so unpopular, meant that despite the attacks on Brooks, the race was tied in the closing days of the campaign with Brooks surging.
In the end, McConnell and his team finally convinced President Trump to endorse Strange. Once Trump endorsed, there were a few more twists and turns, but it was enough to drag Strange across the finish line and give Big Luther a second place finish.
The Runoff was a nightmare for Luther Strange and McConnell. Yes, it was true that Moore had problems. But what McConnell and his team never understood was that by injecting themselves in such a ham-fisted way, they had made Mitch McConnell the issue, not Roy Moore.
McConnell’s meddling wasn’t just bad for Luther Strange, it was bad for Mitch McConnell. By jumping into the race in Alabama, McConnell had made himself the Nancy Pelosi of the Alabama primary and gave anti-establishment candidates a blueprint for how to defeat him in 2018.
Mitch McConnell did not hurt Roy Moore. He nominated Moore.
Once Mo Brooks endorsed Moore, the runoff went from what should have been a conversation about Roy Moore vs. Luther Strange to a simple, binary choice for voters: “Do you really want to reward McConnell with his millions of K Street cash, or do you want to send him a message to stop messing around in our state?”
Once the race was framed that way, the runoff was over. Luther never recovered.
While it’s true that nobody other than Roy Moore’s most hardcore supporters were excited about supporting him in the primary, it’s also true that voters wanted to send DC a message.
The Case for Establishment Intervention in Primaries
McConnell and his team at SLF often make a few basic arguments defending their actions in Alabama. They are worth examining.
1. “If we don’t intervene, we’ll end up with Christine O’Donnells and Todd Akins who will lose vital seats that we need to keep our majority.”
A couple things are important to note here:
A) The argument is essentially that voters must be saved from themselves.
Well…how’s that working out so far?
Everything that transpired since the primary can be tied to the fact that McConnell and SLF meddled in the Alabama primary which created the environment needed for Roy Moore to win the GOP nomination. In retrospect, this was the only way Moore could have won.
B) It’s Alabama.
Mo Brooks was never, ever going to lose this seat or even let it become competitive. In fact, as the only candidate in the field who was neither a pervert or the beneficiary of a shady deal with an unpopular governor, one could argue that Brooks was the only electable GOP candidate.
How can we be so sure Brooks would’ve won the runoff? Because despite his strong base, Moore always had high negatives among Republicans. All of our numbers showed Brooks would win a one-on-one race with Roy Moore.
If McConnell and company had simply stayed out of Alabama, Brooks would have cruised to victory in a runoff, and tonight would have been a cakewalk with none of the drama that has engulfed the GOP in recent months.
C) Yes, the conservative movement has backed some bad candidates before. But let’s also remember: If Mitch McConnell and SLF had their way, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Pat Toomey, and Rand Paul never would have been Senators.
Furthermore, it’s not like McConnell and his team exactly have a sterling record of picking general election winners either. Tommy Thompson, Rick Berg and Connie Mack all come to mind. General elections are hard to win for anyone.
We political “experts” all like to pretend we can predict the future, but it is not true, and we should stop trying. As a reminder, Donald Trump is the President. Nobody had that.
2. “Senate Leadership Fund exists to protect incumbents and keep a GOP majority.”
Having dispensed with the electability argument, even if you subscribe to the incumbent protection argument, Luther Strange was never an elected incumbent. He was given the appointment to this seat as a gift by a governor who people in Alabama could not stand.
Would it have been so bad if Strange had been forced to actually run a campaign on his own and let the voters of Alabama decide the election? And wouldn’t it have been better for Luther Strange? Wouldn’t it have made him a better candidate?
Why was all this necessary?
DC’s flawed choice was (soundly) rejected by the voters in favor of another, even more flawed choice, which led directly to the events of the last two months and the GOP loss tonight.
Worth noting: SLF flushed over eight million dollars in Alabama that could have been used next year in battleground Senate states like Ohio, Missouri, and Montana. Victory or defeat in these races often turns on the help of GOP outside groups. Winnable Senate campaigns often come up short because outside advocacy groups simply don’t have the funds to help them win. (Think Ed Gillespie or Scott Brown in 2014.) Next year, when GOP candidates are being left to die on the battlefield for lack of a well-timed $500,000 or so on TV, remember: McConnell and SLF flushed eight million dollars in a deep red Alabama primary in an off year.
3. “If we don’t protect incumbents, how can we be sure they will ever be loyal?”
Again, look at the results of this line of thinking.
Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski both betrayed Republicans on ObamaCare precisely because they knew that there would be no repercussions for doing so. They know that no matter what they do, McConnell and company will always do their best to protect them.
In Murkowski’s case, after she lost the GOP primary in 2010, and ran a write in bid, McConnell promised publicly that she could keep her seniority if she won. McConnell’s promise was a key reason she was re-elected. We have to ask ourselves: is it possible that if GOP incumbents were more worried about a conservative primary challenge that maybe they would vote more conservatively? Is it possible that if that happened, maybe the conservative grassroots wouldn’t nominate bad candidates just to send a message?
The GOP Senate majority is now in peril in 2018.
There are many lessons for Republicans heading into 2018, but a key one for establishment Republicans is that voters do not want to be dictated to by Washington, DC.
The desire to avoid bad candidates is an understandable goal. It’s shared by every wing of the GOP. But because of the toxicity of the GOP establishment brand today, meddling in primaries actually makes it more likely, not less likely that bad candidates will win primaries in the future. Instead of primaries being about the candidates and their flaws, going forward, they will be about Mitch McConnell and K Street as long as he publicly interferes.
The question now is: will McConnell learn this lesson? How many more seats do we have to lose?