Roy Moore is the embattled Republican senatorial nominee in Alabama, but two other figures in the party have even more to lose in his race: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
First, the obvious. If Moore is beaten by Democrat Doug Jones — a leaked National Republican Senatorial Committee poll has the socially conservative retired judge trailing Jones by 12 points, but this is at odds with public polling — McConnell will be knocked down to leading a 51-49 Republican Senate.
That may not seem like much in a Senate that has no meaningful filibuster for executive and judicial appointments, but where 52 votes are no more useful for advancing legislation that can’t be snuck through the reconciliation process. It is nevertheless significant given that the Senate has already had trouble passing major legislation like Obamacare repeal and tax reform with the majority it currently has.
It also would bring the Democrats one vote closer to recapturing the Senate majority, despite a very daunting electoral map for the upper chamber in 2018. Winning such a reliably red state would aid Democratic candidate recruitment across the board and embolden the party’s ten senators from states President Trump carried who are up for re-election next year.
Superficially speaking, McConnell comes out a loser if Moore is defeated. But not in the bigger picture. The Dec. 12 special Senate election in Alabama could also be viewed as a front in the proxy war between McConnell and Bannon.
After leaving the White House, Bannon threatened to recruit primary challengers for most of the incumbent Republican senators who are seeking re-election in 2018. At a joint press conference with Trump in the Rose Garden, McConnell didn’t mince words about how he felt about this gambit.
“Look, you know, the goal here is to win elections in November,” McConnell said last month. “Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates — Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They're not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election.”
“My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority,” he added. “The way you do that is not complicated. You have to have nominated people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home.”
Bannon wants more Republican senators who will vote against McConnell. McConnell and his allies believe the Breitbart News chief’s intervention in the primaries could lead to fewer Republican senators overall, so they have started punching back.
In September’s Alabama Republican primary, McConnell went all in on appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange and lost, despite the president’s backing. Bannon made the argument that the candidate Trump endorsed wasn’t the one who would be most supportive of the Trump agenda. For that, he insisted, you needed an anti-establishment candidate like Moore. Bannon, via Moore, won.
Both men might have been better off with Rep. Mo Brooks, who was eliminated in the first round of voting. Brooks was big on the Trump agenda and did not have all the weird sexual baggage that could wind up dooming Moore. Bannon allies told the Washington Examiner that the former top Trump strategist might have preferred Brooks.
Yet McConnell’s political apparatus spent heavily against Moore to protect Strange, a sitting senator who struggled from the local perception he secured his seat through some kind of corrupt bargain with disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley. And Bannon couldn’t very well throw his weight behind a candidate who, despite being ideologically Trumpist, endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over Trump in the 2016 primaries — especially while still serving in the West Wing.
Freed from the White House, Bannon backed Moore less because the “Ten Commandments judge” had any particular affinity for the issues that Trump ran on last year and more because Alabama’s political conditions made him likely to beat Strange. Moore would owe McConnell and the establishment nothing, but Bannon would have chits to cash in and an improved reputation as a kingmaker inside the GOP.
If Moore loses in a disastrous fashion (and remember it is courting disaster for this race to even be competitive; in 2014, Jeff Sessions had no Democratic challenger and won over 97 percent of the vote), it will prove McConnell’s point about the futility of Bannon’s enterprise before the Senate majority is ever really at risk.
The funding would likely dry up, as GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson already closed his checkbook. That would be bad news for Bannon-backed candidates, who will look wackier and have access to less resources, and good news for McConnell. And it would have the additional salutary effect of distancing the national party from Moore’s problems — and discouraging Moore imitators.
The risk is that McConnell’s machinations will look to the grassroots like an establishment coup against a duly nominated candidate who so far retains the support of Alabama Republicans. McConnell already proved incapable of swinging the primary against Moore, even with Trump on his side and Alabama has a well-documented history of resisting federal authority.
Even if a victorious Moore is expelled from the Senate, it bolsters Bannon’s argument against McConnell. The populist rabble-rouser can say that the Washington establishment overrode the will of the people in Alabama and normal Republicans cannot be counted on to drain the swamp. And as one of the last national GOP figures still standing behind Moore, Bannon will look prescient, even if he merely got lucky.
On the ballot, it is Moore versus Jones. But they aren’t the only combatants in this unusual election.