Roy Moore’s victory in the Alabama Republican primary is a piece of evidence against the claim that the GOP in 2017 is a Trumpian cult of personality. President Trump invested some political capital in this race on behalf of Luther Strange. The president didn’t go full MAGA; at Friday’s rally, he even wondered whether he had made a mistake in backing Strange. Nevertheless, he clearly expressed his preference to Alabama Republicans — and they chose differently. With a nine-point victory margin, Moore won handily. The populist-conservative grassroots that were so important for Trump’s 2016 victory did not uniformly support his candidate.
Pitting the outsider’s outsider (Moore) against the avatar of the Republican establishment (Strange), the primary often emphasized style and personality over discrete policy positions. Nevertheless, this election result could have implications for policy debates. The fact that the Alabama Republican electorate has chosen to break with the president in this primary could be a sign that the Republican base will not be willing to roll over for the president on any and every issue. For instance, a number of Beltway talking heads have insisted that the president can cavalierly fail to deliver on his campaign promises on immigration and other issues because the GOP base will gladly accept anything that has a Trumpian imprimatur. This argument was already somewhat undermined by the subpar polling support from Republican voters for many of the futile efforts at health-care reform this year. But the defeat of “Big Luther” underlines in bright red ink the fact that grassroots Republicans will not march to every tune the president calls.
Last night’s result, then, suggests that populist forces are distinct from Donald Trump. In 2016, he was able to harness these forces by making certain policy commitments and by affecting a certain style. But it seems as though the president could lose those forces if he surrenders the political commitments he campaigned on. This doesn’t mean that the president can’t work with Democrats on certain issues; indeed, an infrastructure deal with Democrats might gratify, rather than alienate, populist voters. But breaking with certain populist-conservative tenets (especially on immigration) could damage the president’s standing with the voters he will need for reelection in 2020.
Luther Strange’s loss could also have implications for congressional Republicans. Putting a Trumpian face on the same old policies might not be enough for the GOP to rally its voters. If Republicans hope to use Trump’s affect as a substitute for meaningful policy reforms, they might have to look forward to continued political stalemates.