The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Alabama Senate Race Has Lessons for Populists and the Establishment

Roy Moore’s loss on Tuesday underlines the significant possibility that both the establishment and populists might need to revise their electoral strategies.

One of the traditional strengths of the “establishment” is its ability to cut deals. Well, the GOP establishment might need to start thinking about how to cut some deals with the base of its own party. This might mean teaming up with some Tea Party–aligned politicians in order to block more unpredictable (and unelectable) radical outsiders.

Roy Moore always looked like he was going to make it past the first round of the GOP primary. However, rather than trying to ally with the populist-but-electable Mo Brooks, establishment-aligned forces such as the Senate Leadership Fund spent buckets of money attacking Brooks. Moreover, the establishment also convinced President Trump to endorse Luther Strange. The strategy was clear: Kneecap Brooks in order to have Strange cruise to victory in a Strange-Moore runoff. In the short term, it was successful. Polls taken between August 8 and 10 (before the Trump endorsement could be fully felt) had Strange ahead of Brooks by only a few points. By the August 15 primary, however, Brooks was decisively beaten. (Trump’s endorsement couldn’t lift Strange all the way to the nomination, but it did likely help him beat Brooks.)

However, as Tuesday’s results show, that strategy didn’t quite work out over the long term. Heading into 2018, the Republican establishment might at times need to compromise with populist upstarts. That might include supporting them in primaries or trying to offer them support for alternative races (for instance, there are a few open Republican-leaning House seats that Kelli Ward could run for).

Meanwhile, populists are going to need to start vetting their candidates more seriously. There were plenty of warning signs that Roy Moore would be a vulnerable candidate in the general election. Supporting someone just because they inspire “librul tears” can be a counterproductive electoral strategy. It also might not be the best political strategy. The fact that someone is shocking doesn’t mean he can draft legislation, persuade the body politic, or forge a legislative coalition. And it certainly doesn’t mean he can win elections.

While the Alabama Senate race was dominated by Roy Moore’s flaws, it also casts light on a bigger dynamic. So far in the Trump administration, Republicans have tried to govern through pushing unreformed, donorist policies while hoping that the president’s angry tweets will give a sufficient veneer of populism. Based on election results in Virginia and, now, Alabama, that strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Health-care reform and the tax bill have proven dramatically unpopular, and the president’s cultural feuds have helped dragged down his approval rating. The base grows increasingly irritated with a party that has not delivered on any populist legislative priorities, and swing voters are turning hard against a party that alternates between internecine warfare and the numb inertia of nostalgia. If the GOP can’t adopt more responsive policies and a more restrained tone, it might end up trading its 2016 political mandate for a frantic and sloppy waltz on the Titanic.

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