Despite the over-caffeinated news coverage, little of what happens on a day-to-day or even week-to-week basis in American politics has real meaning or long-term consequence. An exception was the victory Tuesday of controversial former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore over appointed Republican Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama. It was a very big deal.
Forget President Trump’s awkward, backhanded endorsement of Strange. Roy Moore was effectively the Trump candidate, and Luther Strange was the establishment candidate. This race was yet another sign of the realignment that is taking place within the Republican Party (there’s one underway among Democrats, too) because of a culture war within the GOP. The battle pitted the populist, antiestablishment Moore, the candidate of downscale whites as well as evangelical and other social and cultural conservatives, against the traditional, upscale, business-oriented Strange, the candidate of the country clubs and Episcopalians and Presbyterians.
The real import is not just the Alabama seat itself but how it fits into the national battle over control of the Senate, and whether what happened is a precursor of what may happen in other states. Had Strange won the runoff, Democratic nominee Doug Jones, appointed by President Clinton to the post of U.S. attorney, would have had a zero percent chance of winning the Dec. 12 general election to fill the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions resigned to become U.S. attorney general.
As it now stands, Moore probably has about an 80 percent chance of winning the general election. Remember that Alabama is a state Donald Trump carried with 62 percent of the vote last year, and Mitt Romney won with 61 percent in 2012. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Sen. Richard Shelby was reelected in 1992, before he switched parties.
Even though Moore lost a GOP gubernatorial primary in 2006 by almost 2-1 and came in fourth in another primary in 2010, federal races are much more left-right and partisan. To lose, Moore would likely have to make a gigantic faux pas, something along the lines of then-Rep. Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape,” which handed the 2012 Missouri Senate election to Sen. Claire McCaskill and cost the GOP a precious seat. Moore’s track record of explosive comments has to make Republicans nervous, and at least on paper, Jones, the Democrat, looks pretty good, but Alabama is still Alabama, and he needs a huge break to win.
The civil war within the Republican Party is also likely to play itself out in Senate primaries in Arizona, where a conservative incumbent, Jeff Flake, is facing a far-right, Trump-like challenger, and in Nevada, where another establishment-oriented incumbent, Dean Heller, is facing a similar challenge. Both of those races are looking increasingly problematic for the GOP.
There is also an outside chance that the Tennessee race could get interesting now that Sen. Bob Corker has announced he will not seek a third term. Tennessee is a very Republican state, but if the GOP nominated an “exotic” nominee, it is conceivable that Democrats could have a shot there. Moore’s runoff victory will embolden Steve Bannon and other alt-right leaders to step up their efforts to purge the Senate and House of Republican infidels.
Some commentators are proclaiming that the Republican Senate majority is in grave danger, but this seems to be, at least now, a real exaggeration. Even if Trump’s job-approval ratings nationally remain at or below 40 percent, creating a challenging political environment for the GOP, Democrats would need to hold onto all 25 of their own seats up for reelection, including five in states that Trump carried by 19 points or more and five more he carried by single digits, and then gain three more—maybe Arizona, Nevada, and one more among Alabama, Tennessee, or Texas, where Ted Cruz is running for reelection.
It is possible, but it’s probably the equivalent of a royal flush in poker.
Moore’s outspoken promotion of social and cultural issues could make him a disruptive force in the Senate, offering amendments that would cause no end of grief for his Republican colleagues from swing states. It was no accident that the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent close to $10 million to beat Moore in the runoff. McConnell is not known for wasting money, and he knew exactly what would happen if Moore joined the world’s most exclusive club. Moore has the potential to make the current Senate GOP rebels, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, look like obedient choirboys.
It’s hard to imagine the job of Republican Senate leaders getting any worse than it has been for the last eight months, but what happened in Alabama will be a source of migraines in the months ahead.