A number of reasons having nothing to do with national politics may explain Judge Roy Moore’s resounding defeat of Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican Senate primary runoff race on Tuesday. But there’s no denying that the victory will be viewed as a sign that the Steve Bannon/Breitbart wing of the Republican party has the establishment led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan on the run.
By itself, Bannon’s support of Moore probably didn’t determine the outcome but it’s clear that on top of Strange’s other problems, his candidacy was hurt by the perception that he was the creature of McConnell. In a political environment in which any connection with the status quo is poison, Strange seemed to embody everything that the base of the Republican party doesn’t like. Not even the support of President Trump, who was dragged down to Alabama in a futile effort to pump life into Strange’s doomed campaign, made much of a difference.
Moore’s nomination will be an interesting test to see just how red a state Alabama really is when voters go to the polls in the December 12 special election. Moore, a controversial former state supreme-court judge, who was removed twice from office for defying federal orders — once about a statue of the Ten Commandments and the other for defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision – could alienate enough centrist voters to actually give Democrat Doug Jones a chance to win the seat.
But even if Alabama turns out to be such a Republican hotbed than even an unusual character like Moore can win a Senate seat, his victory may be the harbinger of a political year in which Bannon’s efforts to help such outlier candidates defeat establishment choices may alter the dynamic of a 2018 midterm election. As was the case in 2010, when extremist candidates such as Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware cost the GOP a chance to take control of the Senate, party leaders may be held hostage by grassroots voters who don’t care about electability or whether their choice can help Republicans govern.
The missed opportunities of 2010 and 2012 led to a successful effort by McConnell and other leading Republicans to ensure that Senate nominees were mainstream and able to win general elections. But Moore’s win is a sign that after the dismal display put on in Washington by Republican congressional majorities that couldn’t keep their promises to repeal Obamacare, such establishmentarian thinking is very much out of fashion. With Trump — who quickly moved on from his support for Strange — in the White House and the disillusioned GOP grassroots in full revolt, McConnell’s troubles may be just beginning.
In retrospect, McConnell’s decision to invest heavily in Strange’s reelection was a mistake. Strange’s appointment to replace Jeff Sessions as an interim senator after the longtime incumbent became U.S. attorney general was viewed by many in Alabama as a corrupt payoff. Strange was the state attorney general investigating an aide with a close relationship to the since-ousted governor, Robert Bentley. Add in Strange’s lack of personal appeal and being labeled as a tool of the Washington swamp that rank-and-file Republicans would like to drain and the ultimate outcome might have been baked into the cake the moment he took office. In less turbulent times, Moore’s appeal to Evangelical voters might not have offset his liabilities. But with GOP voters now viewing their party’s leaders with even more animosity than the Democrats, this was his moment.
The specifics that doomed Strange in Alabama may not apply to other states, but Bannon is still hoping that he can tap into the same sort of sentiment to make 2018 an even shakier year for the establishment than the Tea Party revolt of 2010.
In 2014, Republicans were determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2010 when extremist nominees hurt their chances to take control of the Senate. But after Moore’s victory, party leaders need to come to grips with the possibility that a lot of Republican voters are no longer listening to their pleas about electable candidates or the need to govern rather than merely protest.
Moore may be just the first of a series of candidates backed by Bannon to knock off the kind of candidates McConnell wants.
Trump’s primary victories in 2016 were a signal that a critical mass of Republican voters no longer cared whether the party was perceived as being led by responsible personalities. Though Trump bears a great deal of the blame for the continued gridlock in Washington even after the GOP won control of the White House and both houses of Congress, that may not be the conclusion 2018 primary voters draw from the D.C. debacles of 2017.
That’s why Moore may be just the first of a series of candidates backed by Bannon to knock off the kind of candidates McConnell wants. That’s bound to cost the Republicans Senate seats next year even if the large total of endangered Democratic incumbents in red states ought to guarantee their continued control of the Senate.
Yet even if Moore wins in December, McConnell’s problems won’t be solved. Senator Moore may prove to be even more trouble than Ted Cruz was in previous terms. That will mean an even more undisciplined GOP caucus than the current herd of cats that McConnell can’t control.
And the problem may go deeper than that. There will be many in Washington who will be rooting for Moore’s defeat in December. But even a Democratic steal of a seat that Republicans should never lose is unlikely to sober up Republican voters. With Trump egging them on and with Bannon orchestrating a more organized effort to back insurgents than the chaotic Tea Party movement did in 2010, they could be in for a year of chaos that could fundamentally transform the GOP from a conservative party to a populist one that is more interested in toppling the likes of McConnell and Ryan than in defeating Democrats, let alone governing.
That’s a prospect that should dismay conservatives and delight a Democratic party that already thinks the public’s disgust with Trump will overcome its lack of a message or compelling candidates of its own. It remains to be seen whether, as turned out to be the case in 2016, that a Steve Bannon Republican party can keep winning national elections now that Trump is running amok in the White House. But if Alabama is any indication, we may be about to find out the answer to that question.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
Editor’s Note: This article originally stated Sharon Angle ran for the Senate in Utah; she was a candidate in Nevada.