Vexing Question for the GOP: Whose Party Is This?
As Republicans assess the fallout from Tuesday's sobering Senate primary in Alabama, many are left to wonder: Whose party is this anyway?
Donald Trump's endorsement was not enough to propel incumbent Sen. Luther Strange to victory. Neither was nearly $10 million in support from Republican leadership — indeed, it seemed to have backfired. And while Steve Bannon is happy to claim credit for a GOP lawmaker's career demise, victor Roy Moore was already leading in the polls before the former White House adviser stepped in.
Indeed, the forces at play are somewhat undefined -- but they are certainly palpable. Voters are "not happy," Texas Sen. John Cornyn told RCP. "They're not happy with the status quo and they clearly wanted to shake it up."
The GOP whip and former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee then added: "I suspect there will be more contested primaries as a result."
Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy sounded a similar note: "I think the people of Alabama are angry. The people in my state are angry. They believe the people in Washington, D.C., don't care and are not listening. They want someone who will listen to them for a change."
Such sentiment among the electorate is hardly a surprise to Republican lawmakers. Trump effectively seized on it through the primaries despite — or perhaps because of -- the best efforts by many in the party to stop him. But the question of how to respond to, or harness, that mood in 2017 was raised anew this week after GOP voters in Alabama let it be known that not even Trump could tell them what to do.
"It is a little bit like watching ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice,’ where they've unleashed something they can't control anymore," says conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic and author of “How the Right Lost Its Mind.” "Trumpism may be more than Donald Trump, and he can't count on his own personality to rein in the forces he has unleashed."
Trumpism beyond Trump has become the "third front" in the GOP civil war, Sykes asserts.
While special elections, especially late-September runoffs, are tempting to overanalyze, the Alabama race does mark an important data point for Republicans navigating new territory in which Donald Trump is president and the party has full control of Washington.
One key takeaway from the Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP leadership-aligned super PAC that spent $9 million on behalf of Strange, is the way in which Republican voters dislike the Republican Congress. "The Republican Congress has replaced President Obama as the bogeyman for conservative GOP primary voters," wrote SLF President and CEO Steven Law in a memo.
A recent Washington Post survey bears this out. It found that 56 percent of Republicans disapproved of the way Republicans in Congress are doing their jobs. Strange's defeat came on the same day another attempt by Senate Republicans to repeal Obamacare fell flat. And Republicans and activists have warned of dire consequences for the party if they are unable to deliver on tax reform.
As warring factions within the party raged on, Trump and other Republicans were on the same page Wednesday in rolling out the reform framework. The president traveled to Indiana to sell the proposal to the public – accompanied by vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly -- while House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders on this issue announced the policy at the Capitol.
While the synergy was welcome, voter blame for any subsequent failure will likely be one-sided. One key assessment from the SLF is that Trump is a dominating force for party voters, who want lawmakers to pass his agenda. "No other person, group or issue has the gravitational pull on Republican primary voters that Donald Trump commands," Law wrote.
Polling bears out Trump's influence. A recent survey by NBC/Wall Street Journal found a significant divide between Republican Party supporters and Trump supporters. For example, while 51 percent of party supporters are satisfied with GOP leaders, only 27 percent of Trump supporters are satisfied with them. Just 36 percent of party supporters had a positive view of Mitch McConnell, but only 13 percent of Trump supporters viewed him positively.
"Its deep, vitriolic and abiding," says one conservative operative about this dislike. "I've never seen the gulf this deep or this broad between Republican leadership and the rank-and-file Republican voter. It's a dramatic break."
In Alabama, Moore and his supporters made McConnell a punching bag in the primary. Even the president was measured in his support for the majority leader: "I do have confidence in him. But it's not up to me, it's up to the Senate," Trump told reporters before heading to Indiana.
But back on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were reluctant to criticize the Kentucky senator. On the contrary, many praised his leadership and previous success in building the party majority.
"I didn't know he was unpopular. He's popular with me," said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby.
"The overwhelming majority of our caucus is together," Shelby said. "I wish we had 56 or 57 Republicans, that way you can absorb the ones who aren't going to be with us."
While proponents of Moore argued he would be more of an asset to Trump and his agenda in the Senate, Moore’s presence, if elected in December, could be more of a nuisance. For example, he signaled during the campaign he would not support the latest Obamacare replacement effort, as it did not adequately repeal the current law, in his view.
GOP strategist Doug Heye believes "the growing GOP divide is less about policy than it is about personality." The former aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was ousted in a surprising primary defeat in 2014, added, " It also demonstrates how taking ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ either too far or just far enough threatens to tear the Republican Party further apart at a time when it's struggling to advance any kind of meaningful agenda."
Republicans in Congress are girding for more primary fights and other challenges exemplified in the Alabama race. Sens. Jeff Flake in Arizona and Dean Heller in Nevada already have insurgents lined up against them. In Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel appears to be readying a challenge to incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker. McDaniel, who joined Bannon at a rally in Alabama this week, came close to defeating Thad Cochran in a 2014 primary.
"We’ve turned a page and made a new start," McDaniel said in a statement after Tuesday’s runoff. "By voting for a true conservative, the people rejected the Washington establishment who think they know what’s best for the rest of us."
But Republicans also caution against over-interpreting the results, noting Moore is a well-known commodity in Alabama, and Strange was never elected but rather appointed by scandal-plagued former Gov. Robert Bentley. "I'm pretty sure we won't see anything quite like that," Cornyn said. "I doubt other primaries will be quite that complicated."
"There's a broader reaction that we have not done anything except [confirm Justice Neil] Gorsuch," John McCain told RCP when asked about messages from the Republican electorate. "But I'm not sure whose responsibility it is.
"It's Republicans, it's Democrats for failure to work with us, it's the environment, it's the polarized scene in America," he said. "It's a whole lot of things."