Politics & Policy

Alabama Was an Early Warning for Senate Republicans

President Trump with Senate Majority Leader McConnell at the White House in September. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
The GOP’s control of the upper chamber could be in jeopardy if the populist and establishment wings can’t work together.

After losing a seat in Alabama, Republicans hold a razor-thin 51–49 Senate majority. Judging strictly by the map, the GOP should increase that majority in 2018: Ten Democratic senators from states carried by Donald Trump are up for reelection, while there is only one Republican senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, up for reelection in a state that went for Hillary Clinton. The two seats currently occupied by retiring Republicans Jeff Flake and Bob Corker will also be open, but they would not, in a normal year, be expected to flip to the Democrats. Were all else equal, Republicans would hang onto the seats they currently hold, turn a handful of Democratic seats, and strengthen their majority.

Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama makes it abundantly clear that all else is not equal. Moore was a uniquely terrible candidate, so there is a danger in reading too much into his defeat. Yet a surge of turnout among black voters and a swing to the left from suburban white women helped propel Doug Jones to victory, just as they propelled Ralph Northam to victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race. That trend, however incipient, has to worry Republicans.

So does the eroding support for the GOP among the rest of the electorate. Democrats lead by ten points on the generic congressional ballot, a reality check for a party that was hoping to clean up in states Trump won, knocking off both left-wing senators like Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) and moderates like Jon Tester (D., Mont.), Joe Donnelly (D., Ind.), and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.). But with the GOP brand losing its luster, the president’s approval rating continuing to fall, and the unpopularity of the tax-reform bill being shepherded through Congress, talk of a blue wave in 2018 has erupted among the commentariat.

What, then, is the GOP to do? As Fred Bauer argues, Moore’s defeat offers a lesson for both the party’s establishmentarian and populist wings. Populists need to take candidate quality more seriously, because ill-qualified insurgents do not fare well in Senate races. To preempt the emergence of those candidates, however, the establishment also needs to make concessions. Ignoring populist concerns creates a void that unsavory actors tend to fill.

It will fall on the president to broker a peace between the two camps, stopping Steve Bannon from doing his darnedest to depose Mitch McConnell. That the Trump administration needs a Senate majority to function should be motivation enough: Were Democrats to take control of the upper chamber, Trump’s efforts to remake the federal judiciary would be cut short while the specter of impeachment haunting his administration would only grow.

What happens in the Arizona election will be instructive. Will Trump endorse the gaffe-prone, Bannon-backed Kelli Ward, who has appropriated the Trumpian aesthetic and pledged the president her loyalty? Will McConnell back sitting congresswoman Martha McSally, who criticized candidate Trump after the Access Hollywood tape and has since drawn ire from populist outside groups? Or will they coalesce around a compromise candidate? Neither Robert Graham, the former state-party chairman, nor Jeff DeWit, the state treasurer, has announced a run, yet each is reportedly interested. Both are staunch Trump supporters who remain reasonable enough to win a general election.

Bannon-backed candidates are expected to mount primary challenges to incumbent Republicans elsewhere, as well. In Nevada, Danny Tarkanian is taking on Heller, a once-reliable Trump critic who has since toned things down. In Mississippi, state senator Chris McDaniel, who lost to Senator Thad Cochran in the 2014 primary, is reportedly close to running against long-time incumbent Roger Wicker. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, may challenge John Barrasso in Wyoming at Bannon’s behest. Tarkanian’s insistence that Heller is insufficiently pro-Trump provides a glimpse of the type of message these candidates would run on. Trump is famously susceptible to flattery, but his backing these primary challengers could cost him political capital — and perhaps the presidency.

Endorsements from Trump and blessings from the Senate Leadership Fund can only go so far. But if Senate Republicans want to stave off a Democratic tidal wave in 2018, top party actors should exert their influence and encourage Republican voters to select the right candidates for Senate. And while they’re at it, they should consider why a tidal wave is a possibility at all.

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