Against the Grain

The Two Senate Primaries Shaping the GOP’s Future

Republicans’ intraparty squabbles aren’t going away, even as they hold all the power in Washington.

Sen. Luther Strange speaks to media on Aug. 15 in Homewood, Ala., after forcing a runoff against former Chief Justice Roy Moore in the Alabama Republican Senate primary.
AP Photo/Butch Dill
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Aug. 22, 2017, 4:21 p.m.

Typically when a party holds the White House, intraparty squabbles are held to a minimum. Republicans surely hoped that, after President Trump’s victory, the days of damaging internal battles were over. But as this year’s Senate primaries are showing, there’s very little harmony within the Grand Old Party. From Alabama to Arizona, outside groups are already preparing for seismic skirmishes to dictate the Republican Party’s future direction.

The divisions speak to an uncomfortable reality about the volatile state of the GOP. Support for Trump is the glue that holds the base together, but the president has no fixed ideology to set the party’s direction. He mainly cares that Republicans offer unwavering loyalty to him. So that’s led Trump to endorse Luther Strange, the establishment-favored appointed senator in Alabama, while personally lambasting party-backed Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona. Despite the Democratic Party’s own divisions, Republican senators will still be facing more primary challengers—even with so few of their members up for reelection in 2018.

Broadly speaking, the Republican Party is suffering through multiple-personality disorder—a consequence of needing an unholy alliance of pro-business pragmatists and anti-trade populists to maintain its majority status in government. For a party that’s supposedly in crisis, the GOP looks like it’s in remarkably healthy shape. Republicans control the presidency, both chambers of Congress, most governorships, and a clear majority of state legislatures. But under the surface, the majority coalition is held together only by maintaining an illusion that there aren’t any differences from within. Traditional conservatism and Trumpian populism don’t have much in common at all, other than a deep-seated disgust with the Left. The differences between the two strands are so large that Republicans are unable to pass legislation of consequence, despite holding immense power in Washington.

These primaries are a consequence of the GOP incoherence, and they are testing the veneer of Republican party unity in the Trump era.

In Alabama, Strange has the support of both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But he’s trailing in the runoff against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has a loyal base among social conservatives in the deeply Republican state. (He’s best known for his fights to display the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol and, more recently, his decision to defy federal court orders on gay marriage.) A poll conducted by JMC Analytics found Moore with a sizable 18-point advantage, 51 to 33 percent, with Strange struggling to expand his support beyond the slice of voters who backed him in the primary. One Republican operative aligned with Strange said he was surprised that Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement of Strange before the primary had little impact on the race.

Strange’s allies insist that the race is closer than advertised, and that the polling doesn’t reflect the advertising blitz against Moore to come. In the primary, Strange focused his firepower on Rep. Mo Brooks to great effect, allowing Moore to rise above the criticism. In the next month, an underfunded Moore will be outgunned on the airwaves, potentially facing the wrath of the president himself.

Moore was defiantly antiestablishment before such a posture was popular within the party. He’s cast his campaign as a referendum against McConnell, symbol of the Washington swamp. And even without Trump’s endorsement, his penchant for controversy and outspoken conservatism make him much more like the president than Strange, the state’s former attorney general.

Arizona’s primary, not occurring until next August, will be the more consequential test for the Republican Party’s future. Sen. Jeff Flake, a reliable conservative on many issues, went public with a scathing slam of the president and his party’s leadership in a new book, Conscience of a Conservative. Since conducting a media blitz for the book, he’s been relatively quiet even as he’s faced attacks from Trump.

Trump’s rally in Phoenix Tuesday night will set the tone for the primary race. Last week, Trump promoted former state Sen. Kelli Ward in a Tweet, even though she’s seen as too extreme and controversy-prone to win the election—even by anti-Flake activists. Since Trump’s tweet, the White House has distanced itself from Ward, recognizing that her significant baggage makes her a weak opponent.

“Nobody glides into any office anymore. This is the reason Senate Republicans started taking an aggressive primary posture: to make sure nominees are able to do the job they’re seeking,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “If it’s between Flake and Ward, the stakes are really high [for the GOP]. She’s fundamentally unfit for office.”

Still, Republicans hold no illusions that Ward’s problems—this new video from the Senate Leadership Fund brutally sums up her glaring vulnerabilities—are enough to ensure her defeat. As in Alabama, it will take millions of dollars in ads designed to improve Flake’s weak standing with the GOP base while broadcasting his rival’s baggage. All told, the Senate Leadership Fund is poised to spend more than $10 million in two red-state primaries just to nominate qualified nominees.

At one time, Republicans could rely on the votes of their grassroots supporters without adapting their agenda accordingly. At best, the single-issue activists were the junior partners in the GOP’s governing coalition, won over with supportive campaign rhetoric but often ignored thereafter. Trump’s election meant that the conservative grassroots are now finally in charge, but they’re as confused as ever about what they stand for.

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