Roy Moore’s Loss Portends New Battles In The GOP’s Civil War
In the wake of Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama’s Special Election on Tuesday, the rift between the so-called establishment wing of the Republican Party seems to be growing:
The once-unimaginable Republican defeat in Alabama’s special Senate election on Tuesday tore open divisions between the party’s establishment and populist wings, inciting bitter recriminations in the Republican Party as Democratic enthusiasm surges — especially in the nation’s cities and affluent suburbs.
While the accusations of child molestation and teenage sexual abuse made Roy S. Moore a uniquely poor candidate, it was not lost on Republicans that Democrats, black and white, had flooded to the polls here just over a month after voters in Virginia overwhelmingly rejected Republican candidates.
In Alabama, a state that Donald J. Trump won by 28 points last year, exit polls showed that as many voters disapproved of the president as approved of him, an ominous sign for Republicans that revealed both soaring Democratic intensity and growing dissatisfaction with Mr. Trump among moderate voters.
“The side that has the energy and anger and enthusiasm usually prevails,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania. “And Democrats don’t have to be for anything, they just have to be against us.”
Republicans are now bracing for the possibility of another unexpectedly difficult special election, in March, this one in a conservative-leaning House district in western Pennsylvania, and they are resigned to having to spend money to protect what has been a safe seat. Further, Mr. Dent, who has already said he will not seek re-election next year, confirmed he has had conversations with TV news executives about becoming an analyst, raising the possibility that he would leave his seat early and create yet another special election for his party. (“I have no definitive plans,” he said.)
For Republicans, competing in the first midterm elections of a president this unpopular was always going to be difficult. But that natural disadvantage is being exacerbated by the conflict between Senate Republicans and antiestablishment conservatives such as Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist who backed Mr. Moore and encouraged the president to join the fight.
Republican lawmakers were all but gleeful on Wednesday at Mr. Bannon’s comeuppance, ridiculing him for supporting the rare Republican who could lose an Alabama Senate race.
“I don’t think Steve Bannon had a good night,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the veteran lawmaker who helped torpedo Mr. Moore’s candidacy by publicly refusing to vote for him.
Mr. Moore’s backers “aren’t the face of the Republican Party that I know,” he added.
Yet with their majority now reduced to a single seat, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and his lieutenants remain uneasy about what antiestablishment forces could do in next year’s primary races and have identified at least two additional campaigns where they believe Bannon-backed candidates could weaken the party.
Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Alex Izenstadt expand on the post-Alabama impact on the internal GOP battles:
Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama — far from settling the score between the McConnell and Bannon wings of the Republican Party — instead touched off another round of internecine GOP infighting over who’s to blame for the party’s loss in one of the most conservative states in the country.
From the outset, the race served as a proxy war between the tight-lipped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a paragon of the party establishment, and Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who has dedicated himself to disrupting everything McConnell represents.
Now, both sides are blaming the other for Tuesday’s loss, with each painting the results as a case study in the other’s political ineptitude. Bannon has argued from the outset that Republican leaders have positioned themselves against the president, determined to thwart his agenda. But McConnell and his allies are using Tuesday’s results to tell the president — whom Bannon helped to cajole into the race on Moore’s behalf — that his former chief strategist is a political liability.
Jones’ victory “unmasked Steve Bannon’s incompetence,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and top political adviser. “What has been exposed here is that Steve Bannon has been the most harmful person to the Trump presidency in all of politics — Republican or Democrat.”
Karl Rove told Fox News that Bannon, despite the hype about his political genius, did little more in Alabama than rant and rave “about the so-called establishment in Washington. Not a winning message.”
Bannon, naturally, is unbowed, refusing to take any responsibility for ceding what looked like an impossible-to-lose seat in the Deep South. He has told associates that the Alabama results are a case study in McConnell’s malpractice.
“Team Mitch did everything in their power to endanger our majority in the Senate and threaten the passage of the Trump agenda by ensuring the outcome that we saw last night,” said Andy Surabian, a spokesman for Bannon, who went on to accuse the Senate majority leader of gloating “about the fact that the Republican nominee in Alabama was defeated.”
Prior to the election, McConnell told associates that he wanted to destroy Bannon politically, according to one person familiar with the Republican leader’s thinking. Their goal: to curtail his influence ahead of the 2018 midterms, in which Bannon has vowed to recruit candidates to knock off McConnell-backed incumbents.
The face-off over the Alabama race is the latest iteration of the bitter infighting that has dominated the Republican Party since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, and that reached an apex last year with the election of Donald Trump, a Bannon-backed outsider loathed by politicians in both parties.
Trump’s victory did little to settle the debate over who controls in the GOP. In fact, the president now appears to be caught in a tug-of-war between McConnell and his establishment allies, some of whom urged him to endorse Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary, and Bannon, who eventually convinced him to intervene on Moore’s behalf.
In many ways, of course, the conflict that we’re seeing erupt in the wake of the loss in Alabama is really just another skirmish in a war that has been going on since 2010 when the rise of the Tea Party ended up having a huge impact on the direction and fate of the Republican Party. While the fact that the GOP ended up taking control of the House and regaining seats in the Senate in that election was generally good news for the party as a whole, they served to mask the brewing conflict inside the party that would manifest itself in the coming years. In several states, for example, the Tea Party and the national fundraising groups that soon came in to co-opt what had started as a “grassroots” movement backed candidates that had absolutely no chance of winning a general election, or who were clearly not qualified for the position for which they were running. The best examples of this, of course, were people such as Christine O’Donnell in Delware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Joe Miller in Alaska. While Miller went down thanks to a write-in campaign by incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski, O’Donnell and Angle lost races that Republicans had a very good chance of winning that year. We saw much the same phenomenon in 2012 when Tea Party forces managed to force out long-term incumbents who would have easily won re-election such as Richard Lugar in Indiana. It wasn’t until the 2014 election cycle that the “mainstream” GOP began seriously pushing back against the radical forces in the base, taking them on directly in primaries in states such as Mississippi and elsewhere. It was largely because those efforts were successful that the GOP managed to pick up nine Senate seats in the 2014 midterms and regain control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.
Even before the outcome in Alabama, it was inevitable that we would see a reopening of the rift in the GOP that has existed for the past seven years. Moore himself, along with the people who supported him such as Steve Bannon, represented the very forces that are trying on a regular basis to pull the party further to the populist right, and they’ve gotten to the point where they see people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan as bigger political enemies than the Democrats. This is why the outcome of Tuesday’s election is likely to widen the chasm as we head into the 2018 midterm season. Many people on the right who came to oppose Moore are referring to his loss as a political setback for Bannon and his allies, and no doubt hoping that this serves as an example for what we’ll see play out in 2018. For his part, Bannon blames the loss on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans who effectively pulled the rug out from under Moore in the immediate aftermath of the accusations of sexual impropriety became public. This is likely to play well with a base that already holds people like McConnell in contempt, and it points toward a 2018 where Bannon, the Tea Party, and the forces that support them will redouble their efforts to push the party toward the populism and Trumpism that they have come to be defined by while the so-called “establishment” concentrates on backing candidates that actually have a chance of winning or holding on to their seats in the House or Senate. Who ends up winning that battle is likely to go a long way toward determining the outcome of the 2018 midterms themselves.