Roy Moore’s upset victory in the Alabama Senate primary sent shock waves through the Republican establishment Wednesday, portending a GOP civil war as outsider candidates in other states threaten to challenge incumbents.
The potential showdowns are reminiscent of the tea party uprising that just a few years ago cost Republicans the majority in the Senate. Now President Trump’s populist rise to power — honed by his former advisor Stephen K. Bannon — has generated a new wave of long-shot candidates capable of upending the 2018 midterms.
“The GOP establishment's stranglehold on American politics is finally coming to an end. It should encourage conservative challengers all across the republic,” he said. “The environment couldn't be any better.”
Arizona’s Kelli Ward, who is challenging Sen. Jeff Flake, said after Alabama she felt “inspired and motivated.”
“Voters elected President Trump to shake up the status quo and get big things accomplished,” she said.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is another incumbent who faces a challenge by a candidate, Danny Tarkanian, with potential backing from Bannon’s allies.
And in Tennessee, incumbent Sen. Bob Corker’s sudden retirement, announced hours before the polls closed in Alabama, sent several potential candidates scrambling for what promises to be an intense primary.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans braced for more incumbents to resign rather than face challenging nomination fights.
As a result, Republican professionals who until recently felt that their control of the Senate was secure because the states holding elections in 2018 mostly lean red have started to worry. The departure of incumbents and the rise of candidates who Democrats easily can attack as extreme might put their majority at risk, they fear. At minimum, the new wave of challengers likely means more money spent and a Senate Republican Caucus that will lean further right, and be harder to control, after the next election.
“You’re going to see in state after state after state people who follow the model of Judge Moore,” Bannon told a cheering crowd at Moore’s election night party in Montgomery. They are candidates “that do not need to raise money from the elites, from the crony capitalists, from the fat cats in Washington, D.C., New York City, in Silicon Valley,” he said.
The night before the election, Bannon specifically denounced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has also been the target of Trump’s anger for the Senate’s failure to pass key elements of his agenda.
“Mitch McConnell and this permanent political class is the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in this country,” he told a crowd of Moore’s supporters. “They think you're a pack of morons. They think you're nothing but rubes.”
In the aftermath of Moore’s victory, Bannon’s allies continued to press that theme. “This is a repudiation of the Republican establishment,” said Andy Surabian, an ally of Bannon’s and now senior advisor at the Great America Alliance, which backed Moore’s campaign and is looking at other races.
“It’s a win for Trump and an absolute rejection of Mitch McConnell and the establishment.”
More establishment-oriented Republican strategists cautioned against reading too much into the outcome in Alabama, noting that special circumstances helped shape the race: Moore benefited from Luther Strange’s appointment to the Senate by a governor who named him just before resigning his own job in the midst of scandal. And Moore has a long history in Alabama politics, which gave him what one Republican strategist described as a “cult-like following” of evangelical Christians that is unlikely to be replicated.
As the former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, Moore was dramatically removed from the bench in 2003 for refusing to take down a display of the Ten Commandments at the courthouse. After being reelected by voters, he was suspended in 2015 for failing to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling favoring same-sex marriages. He ultimately resigned.
Longtime Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) downplayed the ability of outsiders like Bannon to shape statewide races or claim credit in Alabama.
“I don’t know if he’s on Moore’s wagon,” Shelby said in an interview ahead of the election, “or if he’s creating a wagon for Moore.”
Still, the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee allied with McConnell, poured $9 million into the race, mainly on attack ads, but failed to dent Moore’s ramshackle campaign.
That’s an indication of the limits of the establishment’s weapons, some Republican strategists suggested.
"Steve Bannon has declared war on the establishment, and so far he has one scalp on the rail," said Rick Tyler, a Republican campaign consultant who previously worked for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "I would suspect he can do very well in Tennessee and the other states, and his patrons appear to be ready to part with their dollars to make that happen."
The danger signal for Republican leaders is that even as Trump mused publicly and privately about being blamed for Strange’s loss — at a rally ahead of election day Trump suggested he may have made a mistake and endorsed the wrong candidate — the race in Alabama turned into a referendum on the failure of the GOP majority in Congress to deliver on the president’s agenda.
McConnell, in particular, loomed large as a symbol of the Republican logjam in Congress. The majority leader has become a favorite punching bag for conservative grass-roots challengers who take aim at their own party.
Republican leaders allied with McConnell are gearing up for a fight, much as they did to block the rise of tea party candidates in 2014 whom they saw as popular in primaries, but unable to win statewide general elections.
At the same time, they were rushing Wednesday to embrace Moore, determined not to give Democrats an opening in a red state such as Alabama in an election cycle in which Republicans were hoping they could spend their money on offense against incumbent Democratic senators.
“I urge all of our friends who were active in the primary to redouble their efforts in the general election," McConnell said late Tuesday, after Moore’s victory, in a message to supporters.
The Democratic candidate in Alabama, former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, who is known in the state for having won convictions against former Ku Klux Klan leaders after reopening an investigation into the bombing in 1963 of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, hit the campaign trail Wednesday greeting the lunchtime crowd at a popular diner in downtown Birmingham.
The general election in Alabama, which takes place in mid-December, remains a long shot for Democrats — the Deep South state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in 25 years — but Moore’s nomination now gives Jones a chance to peel away centrist Republicans who don’t share his far-right views. Democrats are likely to step up their efforts. Former Vice President Joe Biden is headed to Alabama to campaign for Jones.
“There’s an energy, I think, right now for change that we haven’t seen in this state in decades,” Jones said in a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in Birmingham.
“They’re realizing that a one-party state just hasn’t worked... and they’re looking for a little bit of political checks and balances.”
But Moore is also preparing for the fight ahead, well aware that his race has set the tone for those to come.
“Washington is watching this very closely because it’s a prelude to the 2018 elections,” Moore said after a campaign rally in Florence, in the far northern part of the state. “There’s a lot of people in these states - out West and across the South and the midsection — they’re waiting to see if someone can take on the Washington establishment. For better or worse, I’ve taken on the Washington establishment — or they’ve taken me on.”