In a stunning nail-biter, Democratic Senate Candidate Doug Jones managed to prevail in Tuesday’s special election in Alabama, a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in decades. Democrats were thrilled by the victory. The defeat of Roy Moore, who had the backing of President Donald Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, was also met with jubilation within the demoralized ranks of movement conservatives and centrists still trying to tough it out in the Trump-Bannon GOP. Still, the civil war within the GOP ignited by Trump’s ascendance didn’t end in Alabama, and the disparate reaction to the Alabama Senate results among Republican factions only highlights the depth of its schism.
Still, for Republicans who face a difficult mid-term election next year, Jones’ win isn’t all bad news. In the long-run, it may actually benefit Republicans more than Democrats. Democrats would have surely used the controversial figure of Roy Moore as a club to bludgeon vulnerable Republicans. The loss of a single Senate seat seems a price worth paying if it means holding on to control of Congress.
A Hard Sell
Roy Moore’s loss was not quite the rebuke of Trumpism that many pundits make it out to be. Yes, an anti-establishment populist evangelical conservative like Roy Moore should have won easily in deep red Alabama. But even in Alabama, where statewide GOP candidates routinely win with double-digit margins, a Republican candidate as deeply damaged as Roy Moore is a hard sell. Facing a slew of credible charges of alleged pedophilia, Moore was a dead man walking.
There was little anyone, including President Trump, could have done to rescue him. Although his candidate lost, Alabama proved President Trump still a force to be reckoned with. Exit polls showed Moore won late-deciders by a wide margin — 56-37, likely due to Trump’s last-minute endorsement. Without it, Moore’s losing margin would have likely been wider.
Within the Bannonite wing of the GOP, which these days includes much of the Republican base, Moore’s loss was not a decisive blow. Rather, it only reinforced their distrust of Republican leaders.
Most base Republicans never believed the allegations against Moore. Rather, they dismissed them as machinations of an establishment-media cabal they view as the real enemy. The Bannonites blame Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other establishment Republicans who turned their back on Moore, when allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, for the loss. Now, they plan to turn the fire back on Republican leaders.
A “source close to Bannon” told Kevin Cirilli, a reporter form Bloomberg TV, that Trump’s former strategist is as determined as ever. “This doesn’t stop Steve’s war against the establishment, all it does is pour gasoline on top of it,” the source tells Cirilli.
Source close to Bannon re: #AlSen: "This doesn't stop Steve's war against the establishment, all it does is pour gasoline on top of it."
— Kevin Cirilli (@kevcirilli) December 13, 2017
Andy Surabian, an aide to Bannon, said Trump’s base will punish McConnell by beating establishment-backed candidates in Senate primaries next year. “After doing everything in their power to throw this election to a liberal Democrat, the McConnell establishment should expect the very same America First movement that elected the president in 2016 to be out for their blood in 2018,” Surabian said.
But, the establishment is not taking this lying down. Josh Holmes, a former long-time aid to McConnell leveled his fire on Bannon: “Steve Bannon managed to do the impossible, and he should’ve forever secured a place in the Democratic consultant hall of fame,” Holmes said in an email exchange with NBC News. “It was thought to be damn near impossible for a Republican to lose the state of Alabama, but Steve Bannon hadn’t run a race there.”
Republicans Show Little Sign of Bolting
Despite Roy Moore’s flaws, 91% of Republicans still voted for him. While not as high as the 98% of Democrats that voted for Jones, it is nevertheless a vivid illustration of just how deeply Trumpian populism has affected the psyche of Republican base voters. For them, the Republican Party elite in Washington — many of whom opposed Moore — are held in near equal contempt as Democrats.
Exit polls found that half (52%) of Alabama special Election voters thought the allegations against Roy Moore were “definitely or probably true.” Unsurprisingly, Doug Jones (89%) and write-in candidates (2%) took the vast majority of these votes, while Roy Moore dominated the 43% of voters who thought the allegations “definitely or probably false.”
What was a bit more surprising is that a not insubstantial number of Alabama voters, 8%, believed the allegations against Moore were true, yet voted for him anyway. For these voters, disgust with the Washington establishment or the importance they place on wedge issues like abortion outweighs something Roy Moore did over three decades ago.
It’s likely that the broad bipartisan condemnation of Moore nationally counterintuitively helped him in some quarters. The allegations against Roy Moore were rated the single most important factor for only 7% of voters, accorded to exit polls. But, among the 34% of voters who said that the allegations were “one of several important factors” in their vote, 15% voted for Moore. Most of these likely didn’t believe the charges against Moore. Rather, anger that they were made in the first place was a motivating factor.
To much of the country, Roy Moore is an unhinged loon. (Your humble blogger would tend to agree with this assessment.) But, for at least some Alabamians, the attitude was, he might be a loon, but he’s our loon. They seemed to be saying, the media and Washington establishment aren’t going to tell me how to vote and I’m going to vote for a pedophile just to prove the point.
For Republicans, a Blessing in Disguise
In the long term, a one-seat pickup for Democrats comes at the expense of an opportunity for bigger Democratic gains down the road. Doug Jones’ win is a temporary problem for Republicans. He will be filling the remainder of a term that expires in two years. Republicans will almost certain to recapture the seat in 2020. If Roy Moore had won, the damage to Republicans might have been greater.
Roy Moore’s loss will spare Republicans from a bruising fight, which would further deepen the fractures within the party, over whether to pursue his expulsion from the Senate. The GOP already faces headwinds in the 2018 mid-term elections. Moore’s election would have only made matters worse. Had Moore won, Democrats would likely have used the controversies swirling around him to tarnish Republicans in swing districts. Given Republicans’ razor-thin margins in both houses, it’s a complication the GOP would just as soon avoid.
Historically, a new President’s party loses House seats in the first midterm election. Ronald Reagan lost 26 in 1982 and Barack Obama lost 61 in 2010. There’s a tight correlation between Presidential approval and midterm performance. With President Trump’s 37% approval rating well below Obama or Reagan at this point, Republicans have reason to worry.
Democrats were fired up against Trump in 2017 races, and not just in Alabama. In races earlier this year in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans faired poorly all the way down the ballot. This was especially true of Republicans who occupy districts that trend Democratic. Democrats likely will capitalize on that energy again in 2018. Further, Democrats now lead Republicans by 15 points on the generic ballot, a hypothetical match-up of a generic Republican versus a generic Democrat that is historically a very reliable leading indicator of midterm election performance.
The Senate presents less risk for the GOP than the House. The high number of Democratic Senators up for re-election next year relative to Republicans should allow the GOP to maintain a majority in the upper chamber.
But, in the House, things look grimmer. There are 23 GOP House members in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton and 42 in districts Trump won by less than 50%. Democrats only need 24 seats to gain control.
It’s likely that the Republicans’ challenges would have been compounded by the election of Roy Moore, whom much of the country believes is guilty of sexual misconduct, as a Republican Senator. “If there is any small comfort to be found in Tuesday night’s results,” Ned Ryun, who runs American Majority, a conservative grassroots organization wrote in a Fox News column, “it’s that Democrats can’t hang Roy Moore around Republicans’ necks — or Trump’s for that matter — in 2018.”
Roy Moore’s loss could end up proving decisive in preventing Democrats from gaining control of the House next year, and potentially the Senate in 2020 when more Republicans are up for re-election. Sometimes, losing has its advantages.