Politics & Policy

GOP Internal Fights Lost Alabama

Roy Moore speaks to supporters on election night in Montgomery, Ala. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Bachman)
Republicans need to take primaries more seriously.

Though he still refuses to concede the race, Republican Roy Moore will not be representing the people of Alabama in the U.S. Senate come January. That honor will go to Doug Jones, a staunchly pro-abortion Democrat who — without the combined and imbecilic efforts of many within the GOP — would otherwise be looking forward to a quiet Christmas at home, followed by even more quiet.

Instead, Jones will be heading to Washington in the New Year to take his seat as the first Democratic senator from Alabama in 25 years. Just how did this near-miracle come about in the Yellowhammer State? It required an utter collapse of multiple factions of the GOP, which, further weakened by the last-minute allegations against Moore, worked together to deliver the seat into Jones’s waiting hands.

As David French has already rightly pointed out on NRO, this seat wasn’t snatched for the Left by a sudden groundswell of progressive support among Alabama voters. This race wasn’t entirely a referendum on Trump, nor its outcome a wholesale indictment of his presidency. The seat was, in essence, handed to Jones by a series of failures on the part of the Republican party, compounded by Moore’s distinctly terrible candidacy.

It was a disaster from the very beginning. The party’s disunity was already evident in the leadup to August’s GOP primary, a three-way race between Moore, Representative Mo Brooks, and incumbent Luther Strange – the lattermost of whom was appointed by the governor to fill Jeff Sessions’s seat after Sessions became Trump’s attorney general.

During the primary campaign, the GOP establishment rallied hard for Strange, and both Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump officially endorsed him. The Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC with close ties to McConnell, pledged up to $10 million in support of Strange.

What’s more, the majority leader’s National Republican Senatorial Committee warned party strategists not to assist Strange’s primary opponents, or else they’d risk future opportunities to work for and with the GOP.

Brooks, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, was evidently viewed by the establishment as more of a threat to the GOP agenda than Moore would be. The SLF hammered Brooks with ads suggesting that he was opposed to Trump, a devastating attack in a state known for incredibly high levels of support for the president.

Politico reported in late July that, at McConnell’s behest, one of his top strategists and allies began offering free advisory aid to a long-shot GOP candidate who aimed to challenge Brooks for his House seat. The move was seen as an effort by McConnell to discourage Brooks from putting all of his funding into knocking off Strange.

McConnell’s animosity toward Brooks was perhaps understandable. The conservative firebrand said over the summer that, if elected, he wouldn’t necessarily vote for McConnell as majority leader, and he called for McConnell’s resignation after the Senate failed to pass the Obamacare-repeal bill.

But it was surely an error in judgment on McConnell’s part not to realize how his attacks on Brooks would leave the back door open for Moore to sneak in. And he did just that. In the primary, Moore raked in 38.9 percent of the vote to Strange’s 32.8 and Brooks’s 19.7, sending Moore and Strange into a late-September runoff.

Moore’s eventual triumph in that runoff was in part a consequence of the elevation of Steve Bannon and the populist wing of the GOP. Bannon didn’t draft Moore or cause his primary victory, but he embraced the former Alabama supreme court chief justice late in the primary and heralded him as a true champion of the anti-establishment movement. This was just the latest installment in Bannon’s several-year quest to elevate fringe candidates and unseat long-time Republican politicians who aren’t nearly populist enough for the Breitbart chief and his ilk.

And Moore’s eventual loss to Jones is a mere sampling of what the Republican party should expect if it can’t find a way to resolve the tension between its established political leadership, its voters, and the hard-right strategists such as Bannon, who appear willing to burn the party down to achieve their own ends.

It is blessedly rare for a candidate to be credibly accused of sexually assaulting underage women — and those accusations against Moore undoubtedly played a tremendous role in Jones’s ultimate win. But Moore was a highly unfit candidate even before those allegations emerged, and yet he somehow made it through two rounds of primary voting unscathed, and, until mid November, was well positioned to end up in the Senate.

The seat was, in essence, handed to Jones by a series of failures on the part of the Republican party.

One key takeaway from this debacle is the need for voters to become more invested in the primary process. In the August GOP primary, just 18 percent of voters turned out, and in the September runoff that percentage dropped to 14. Roy Moore has never been intensely popular among Alabama Republicans, but those who didn’t like him clearly didn’t show up to vote for his primary opponents.

There is no reason to believe that Alabama is turning blue. But this disaster of a race suggests that, if the Republican party doesn’t acknowledge and work out its internal dilemmas, 2018 may have more unpleasant surprises in store.

READ MORE:

Alabama Conservatives Made Their Stand

The GOP Dodged a Bullet With Roy Moore’s Defeat

The Alabama Senate Race Has Lessons for Populists and the Establishment

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