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Judge Roy Moore’s substantial defeat of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handpicked, well-financed candidate, “Big Luther” Strange in the Alabama Republican Senate Primary is a political earthquake. It shows that the political and cultural tide that propelled Donald Trump past 16 primary opponents and Hillary Clinton into the White House is still running strong.
Two headlines from the New York Times explain why:
They present a near-perfect symmetry of cause and effect: McConnell’s brand of timid, ineffectual leadership, on the one hand, leads to a devastating electoral rebuke on the other. Voters served notice—again—that unprincipled, do-nothing Republicans who are more at home in opposition than in power are unneeded and unwanted.
And the Alabama race presented a clear picture of the battle for the soul—and control—of the Republican Party.
Under dubious circumstances, Luther Strange—a well-known ally of the Senate leadership—was appointed to fill the seat previously held by former Senator, now Attorney General Jeff Sessions. For a base Republican electorate already tired of business-as-usual politics, Strange was the avatar of everything wrong with their party: he’s a former Washington lobbyist who, as attorney general of Alabama, seemed to end a corruption investigation of the state’s governor just in time for that same governor appoint him to the U.S. Senate. When faced with questions from Alabama voters, he couldn’t seem to give direct answers to the important issues of the day, from immigration and national security to healthcare and tax reform. That simply confirmed voters’ suspicions that Strange lacked a discernible center of gravity.
And so he lost to the 70-year-old Judge Roy Moore, despite Trump’s endorsement and a raucous rally with the president on the Friday before the election. What’s more, Strange had oodles of money, led by $9 million from McConnell’s own Senate Majority Fund and millions from the Chamber of Commerce and other establishmentarian groups. In total, McConnell directed more than $30 million into the Alabama primary to defeat another Republican.
But why? Why would the Senate Leadership get so heavily involved in a primary in deep red Alabama? There is virtually no chance of the Senate losing that seat to a Democrat, no matter who the Republican candidate is.
The depth and breadth of the financial commitment are evidence of fear bordering on panic on the part of the Republican establishment. And that tells us two things: 1) McConnell and the Chamber of Commerce crowd are far more interested in defeating conservatives than they are in passing legislation that matches their campaign promises, and 2) they are poor stewards of other people’s money. Neither of these traits are desirable for political allies or for legislators overseeing the public fisc.
The biggest loser is Mitch McConnell, who should see that his days as majority leader are numbered. If history is any guide, McConnell will not go gently into that good night. The wrath of country club Republicans never burns so hotly nor are they ever so energetic as when they have base Republican voters in their sights. Democrats they can deal with, but a peasant voter uprising within their own ranks? That deserves a pogrom.
Still, it’s the people’s party and it’s easier to find new leadership than it is to find new voters. For the moment, the rank and file seem to have figured that out that they have the whip hand.
Trump reportedly went to bed Tuesday night, “embarrassed and pissed” at having been led into defeat by McConnell. Let this be a reminder to the president of how voters feel.
Perhaps sensing the change in the wind, incumbent Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of the prime movers in the Senate behind Obama’s disastrous Iran deal, announced that he would not seek re-election. Other Senators who are notably out of step with the president and their own constituents may do that same or face defeat at the hands of emboldened challengers who believe in Trump’s populist, nationalist agenda.
Arizona’s Jeff Flake tops everyone’s list of endangered Republicans, but he is joined by Nevada’s Dean Heller and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker. In the House, there are many more.
The good news for Republicans is that Moore’s win will likely draw more and stronger candidates from the sidelines. Despite all the talk of Trump’s “cult of personality,” the 2016 election was about ideas—and ideas, as Richard Weaver famously observed, have consequences.
It is not lost on the public that congressional Republicans have failed to pass a single piece of significant legislation. The slow-motion debacle that has been the “fight” to repeal Obamacare is just the most prominent example of the leadership’s inability to legislate which is, after all, their one and only job.
The old Republican guard can’t persuade people. Why would anyone rally to McConnell? He doesn’t get anything done. Power not used is power lost. So what is the point of supporting a Majority Leader that doesn’t have the stomach to legislate?
While Trump will get to fulfill his pre-election promise to “campaign like hell” for Roy Moore now that he has won the primary, voters have seen that they can defeat the money and organization of the GOP establishment with an authentic candidate and a campaign based on common sense principles. Mitch McConnell should be considering another role in the Senate. The promise of the 2010 Tea Party election was postponed but not lost. That promise may be fulfilled by a rising generation of American nationalist candidates with the courage to govern.
As they come forward, voters need to ask them one defining question:
Will you vote for new leadership?
The drubbing McConnell and Co. took in Alabama proves that the Republican Party can become a republican party once again. The party’s future is one based on civic friendship and a political culture rooted in a strong, broad, and vibrant middle class. That’s the America of the founding. If we’re diligent—and a little bit lucky—that’s also the America of the future.
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