The defeat of Sen. Luther Strange by former state Chief Justice Roy Moore in the special primary runoff in Alabama is being hailed by many — including the wonderfully contrarian blogger Mickey Kaus — as a sign that Trumpism, or fidelity to what is perceived to be Trumpism, is more popular than Trump.
After all, President Trump endorsed Strange, while former White House staffer Steve Bannon, who seems to regard himself as the tribune of true Trumpism, endorsed Moore. Moore's victory is also taken as an indication that Republican incumbents who can be identified with the Washington establishment may be challenged and defeated in primaries. The decision, announced Tuesday, of Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker that he is going to retire rather than seek a third term next year, is arguably evidence of something like the same phenomenon.
There's a lot to say in favor of these arguments. But there's also something to say along the lines of, hold on, this may not be as defining an event as some say. Reasons:
1. Roy Moore had an unusual advantage for a challenger and Luther Strange had some unusual disadvantages for an incumbent. Moore has a long history of controversial involvement in Alabama politics, including his elections and ousters as chief justice of the state's Supreme Court. Few other insurgent candidates are likely to be so well known. Strange became a senator when he was appointed to fill Jeff Sessions' vacancy by Gov. Robert Bentley, who soon resigned himself due to a personal scandal. Few other "establishment" candidates are likely to have such baggage.
2. The alignments of support were along what have become familiar lines. Strange carried three of the four heaviest voting counties, which also happen to be the counties with the highest percentage of high-education voters: Jefferson and Shelby Counties in metro Birmingham, Madison County in metro Huntsville. But Alabama has a lower percentage of college graduates than all but six other states.
3. Trump's endorsement of Strange did not carry all before it. And his appearance for Strange at a Friday night event in Huntsville was not maximally effective. The big news coming out of it was his negative commentary on the National Football League. Could a more disciplined Trump endorsement have produced the 6 points Strange turned out to need for a victory? Maybe.
4. This was a 55 to 45 percent race: not an overwhelming margin in a primary. It featured two candidates who had run statewide before, but Moore was far better known and had been tested with far more vigorous opposition. There is polling suggesting the race was even two weeks ago, which suggests the result was not inevitable.
5. Subversive question: What if Moore loses to Democrat Doug Jones in the December special election? Jones is a respectable candidate, a former U.S. attorney; Moore won with just 52 percent in 2012, well behind Trump's 62 percent in 2016 and Mitt Romney's 61 percent in 2012. I wouldn't rate Jones the favorite, but the numbers suggest an upset is not impossible. And should it occur, in December, it's likely to affect candidacy decisions and voter responses throughout the rest of the 2018 electoral cycle.