In Tuesday night’s runoff to decide who will be the GOP’s candidate in the December special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate, ultraconservative theocrat Roy Moore easily defeated the candidate preferred by President Trump and the Senate Majority Leader, Luther Strange.
Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz tried to decide what it all meant.
Let’s flip this on its head. What are the upsides of Roy Moore winning the special election?
Ed: A lot of conservative money got wasted, with the prospect of a lot more being wasted in future primaries. Also, Alabama’s loss of Jeff Sessions doesn’t mean it can no longer have the craziest member of that chamber.
Jon: Does this actually make Sessions seem more reasonable? Like standing next to a tiny person makes you look tall or standing next to Luther Strange makes you look tiny.
Eric: Man, will Sessions be a “moderate” elder statesman in the GOP of 2021?
Eric: This may make it harder for McConnell to shepherd through the GOP’s regressive agenda. Moore said this morning he would have voted against Graham-Cassidy — and its trillion-dollar cut to Medicaid — because the bill was basically socialized medicine.
Jon: McConnell deserves to have crazy people ruining his life as frequently as possible.
Ed: Keep in mind, BTW, that Luther’s still in the Senate until December.
Eric: Yeah. But the Republicans have made a habit of falling behind schedule on tax reform, and there is still chatter about reviving Obamacare repeal next year. Moore’s win may make the latter impossible.
Ed: He’ll be part of the Rand Paul/Mike Lee/Ted Cruz pack.
Eric: And, presumably, the most wild-eyed among them …
Jon: He’s a firebrand, Eric. That’s the term. It means “politician who might literally fire weapons in public.”
Eric: Right. He’s “populist,” “an anti-Establishment insurgent” — who just happens to think Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress, and American gays are responsible for 9/11.
Ed: Let’s remember Roy does have to survive a general election, in which we may find out what could have happened if Luther Strange had not insisted on trying to get to Moore’s right.
Jon: Moore is an interesting case study in Eric’s “there is no center” thesis. I actually think in many states there is a center, which is why extreme candidates have lost several winnable races, in Indiana, Missouri, Delaware, etc. But in Alabama there may be no center. I don’t think any ideological criteria could cause him to lose. It would have to be some kind of personal behavior — criminality, running through the streets naked, punching a nun, etc.
Eric: Yeah. I think that, in a low-turnout special election, whether a broad swath of the electorate finds you alienating matters less than whether you can command the enthusiasm of a well-organized interest group. And Moore has the latter with Evangelicals.
Ed: There are business types who will not be able to bring themselves to support Roy. And we are now going to be reminded of all the crazy stuff Moore has said and done over the years. Again: Team Strange did not Go There on the theory, I guess, that Alabama Republicans agreed with it all.
Where do you place the chances of Moore winning the general election? Give us some fake probabilities.
Ed: 90 percent. Would have been 99 percent for Strange.
Jon: Eh, maybe 85? National environment could change. Ninety percent in current environment, but who knows what Trump might screw up.
Ed: It’s been a while since a Democrat has been competitive in a statewide race in Alabama. Add in the GOP advantage in special elections, and it’s quite the long, long shot.
Eric: Jones’s campaign slogan — based on his tweets in the last 24 hours — appears to literally be “I won’t embarrass you.” It will be interesting to see how that resonates.
Ed: I think that’s exactly the right message for Alabama. It’s one thing to defiantly vote for Moore when Yankees (and McConnell, being from a border state, qualifies) are telling you not to. It’s another when you choose him. Alabama has struggled for decades to overcome the reputation it had in the ’60s. Moore being in the limelight won’t help.
Eric: Yeah. I could certainly see that resonating with the business community. Surely, Moore won’t make a great ambassador for a state trying to get tech firms to relocate or what have you.
Before Trump, one would assume that candidate who had blamed America for bringing 9/11 on itself — or repeatedly evinced contempt for the rule of law — would be dogged by such things throughout their campaigns. It is fascinating that Luther chose not to use that ammunition.
Ed: No enemies to the right!
Eric: Yeah, it will be very interesting to see whether it proves more damaging than Trump’s taped sexual-assault confession/every other word that came out of his mouth during the campaign did.
Jon: As Ed has suggested in his coverage, the fact that Strange had to get to Moore’s right was a surrender of the major principle before a shot was fired. If you can’t attack a lunatic for being a lunatic, and you have to paint him as a liberal, your party is too far gone.
Ed: Jones’s only hope is that Roy says a lot of new crazy things during the campaign. A man who believes God is quite literally directing his campaign isn’t going to be very circumspect.
If Moore wins, what’s the likelihood that he finishes Sessions’s term without an A1 New York Times headline scandal?
Eric: Hmm … that requires one to judge the likelihood of a major Roy Moore scandal — *and* the probability that said scandal isn’t revealed on a day when some other member of the Republican Party/Trump administration does something even more egregious.
I’d say there’s a good chance that Moore’s attempt to perform an exorcism on Keith Ellison gets bounced from page one by Tom Price stealing the Declaration of Independence from the Smithsonian.
Ed: I dunno about an A1 NYT “scandal,” but Roy would be wonderful fodder for liberal political writers. It’s not the positions he takes so much as the ooo-eeee-ooooh rationales.
Jon: I think we just discovered another possible upside.
What does this all mean?
Eric: It’s a good question. How does this affect Senate Republicans going forward? Will it be harder for McConnell to wrangle tough votes now that his money proved useless to protect Strange?
Literally, Moore ran against Strange for cooperating with McConnell. The litmus test wasn’t any particular policy — it was “Did you make Mitch McConnell’s life harder or easier?”
Jon: That’s a great point, Eric. The Establishment imprimatur may be a negative for Republicans. Ergo, what can McConnell give as an inducement?
Ed: I dunno. I can see some Republican senators looking at this and saying “Mitch was willing and able to raise a gazillion dollars for this stone-cold loser …” I mean, I think we ought to acknowledge that Luther Strange was a really, really bad candidate. Moore would have won by 20 without the Trump endorsement. And anyone else — say, Mo Brooks — would have beaten him easily, too.
Eric: I realize, too, that we haven’t actually, explicitly listed downsides to the likely election of a senator who doesn’t believe in rule of law or civil rights for gays and Muslims. Presumably, they go without saying.
Jon: When Moore overthrows the government, this chat could one day be excavated, like those early New York Times stories about Hitler. It seemed so funny at the time …
Eric: Anyhow, it does seem important to note that as reactionary and terrible as the median Senate Republican is, at least they generally recognize the basic citizenship rights of LGBT folks and religious minorities.
Moore’s insanity — like Trump’s incompetence — may actually help impede the passage of regressive legislation. But like Trump, his mere elevation to a position of status and power could have corrosive effects on our culture.