McConnell, GOP Senate brace for Roy Moore

McConnell, GOP Senate brace for Roy Moore
© Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDoug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh gets questionnaires for confirmation hearing Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (R-Ky.) and his allies are coming to grips with the fact that the next GOP colleague in their club is likely to be a conservative firebrand who the No. 2 Senate Republican just last week said would not be a reliable member of the conference.

Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama’s GOP primary on Tuesday is trouble for McConnell, who will have a new disruptive force to deal with in the Senate — assuming Moore wins the general election in December.

Moore provided a blueprint for defeating Senate GOP incumbents that involved using McConnell as a punching bag — something the Senate GOP leader and his colleagues all noticed.

Moore’s trouncing of Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeCrowley surprise tops huge night for left Races to watch in Tuesday’s primaries Loyalty to Donald Trump is new normal for the Republican Party MORE (R-Ala.) had GOP senators scrambling on Wednesday to mend fences, given their opposition to his candidacy. A group linked to McConnell spent more than $10 million to defeat the conservative. Moore pledged in a fundraising email to “end Mitch McConnell’s reign as majority leader.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynRussians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit Top GOP senator: Trump should be 'clear-eyed' going into meeting with Putin Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE (Texas) spoke to the primary winner by phone Wednesday morning to express his support in the Dec. 12 general election.

A week after he said Moore’s track record suggested he would not be a reliable member of the conference, Cornyn downplayed fears that Moore would be a disruptive force.

“We’ve got a whole spectrum of personalities and characters in our conference, so I look forward to his constructive engagement to try to get things done,” he told reporters.

It was a markedly different message from the one sent by Cornyn last week.

Asked then if he thought Moore would be reliable and productive on important issues such as tax reform, Cornyn said simply, “I do not.”

Pointing to the candidate’s controversial judicial record, Cornyn noted, “Getting thrown off the Supreme Court of your state twice, I don’t think, is a credential that commends you for membership in the United States Senate.”

Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 after placing a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse and again in 2016 after ordering state judges to ignore a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

McConnell released a statement Tuesday that congratulated Moore on his victory and emphasized that the GOP leader shares his “frustration” over the lack of progress in enacting President Trump’s agenda.

“We look forward to Judge Moore’s help enacting that agenda when he arrives,” McConnell added.

McConnell also spoke to Moore on the phone, according to a spokesman, who did not provide details of the conversation. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Memo: Trump leaves chaos in his wake in UK Beto O'Rourke is dominating Ted Cruz in enthusiasm and fundraising — but he's still headed for defeat GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (R-Texas), a conservative firebrand himself, sounded the most upbeat of Senate Republicans about Moore’s victory.

“Congratulations to @mooresenate for a hard-fought victory in tonight’s runoff. It was a testament to the power of conservative grassroots,” Cruz posted on Twitter.

Senate GOP sources say the leadership will try to mitigate the threat Moore poses to its hierarchy and agenda by reaching out to him on legislative and political priorities. Leaders will send a clear message that the best strategy for him to accomplish his goals is to work with fellow Republicans harmoniously.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRand Paul ‘concerned’ about Kavanaugh Senate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (R-Ariz.), who backed the leadership during its standoff with Cruz in 2013, when Cruz worked closely with House conservatives to oppose the implementation of ObamaCare and caused a government shutdown, said “inclusiveness” is key to dealing with rebels.

“You bring them into the issues and you say, ‘Hey, we need your help on this,’ ” McCain said. “Senators realize after a while that if we’re going to get things done, we have to govern collectively.”

Some Senate GOP aides argued that Cruz could be a model for Moore.

They said McConnell was able to bring Cruz into the fold after years of acrimony, which came to a peak of intensity when Cruz accused McConnell on the Senate floor of lying about an alleged deal with Democrats to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.

Cruz has kept a lower profile this year and worked cooperatively with Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix Supreme Court vacancy throws Senate battle into chaos Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion groups see chance to overturn Roe v. Wade with Kennedy retirement | HHS watchdog to probe detention center conditions | VA pick vows to oppose privatization MORE (R-Tenn.) and GOP leaders on a health-care bill that eventually failed over the summer.

“You never know what happens after you come to the swamp. Ted Cruz? He’s now a swamp creature,” joked one Senate GOP aide.

Yet there are real reasons to think such arguments amount to wishful thinking.

Cruz’s evolution this year came after he refused to endorse Trump at last year’s GOP convention, which hurt the Texan with the president’s supporters. Cruz is now up for reelection in 2018. While he is the favorite, Democrats are hopeful of running a competitive race.

McCain said it’s too soon to tell how Moore will fit in with GOP leaders and colleagues, echoing sentiments expressed by other Republican senators.

“You never know until people are here,” he said.

The most immediate concern for Republicans running for reelection next year is that primary opponents will copy Moore’s playbook and use McConnell against them.

A Harvard-Harris poll provided to The Hill in August showed that McConnell had the lowest favorability rating of any elected official with a national profile. He earned a 19 percent favorable rating, lower than Trump or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP leaders jockey for affection of House conservatives Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump walks back criticism of UK Brexit strategy | McConnell worries US in 'early stages' of trade war | US trade deficit with China hits new record MORE (R-Wis.).

“I think we’re all going to spend a little bit of time looking at the race in Alabama,” said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 Overnight Energy: House to vote on anti-carbon tax measure | Dem says EPA obstructed 'politically charged' FOIA requests | GOP looks to overhaul endangered species law MORE (R-Alaska), who was critical of the closed and sometimes rushed process of negotiating health care earlier this year.

She said she hoped that McConnell would not become a rallying cry for Tea Party challengers next year.

“I hope it’s just a one-off,” she said.

Cornyn firmly rejected the idea that Moore’s election would shake up the Senate power structure.

“Sen. McConnell’s standing as the leader in the Republican conference, I think, is very solid, so I don’t see that as a problem,” he said.

Cornyn also questioned whether Moore’s success necessarily bodes trouble for other GOP incumbents.

He said Strange hasn’t served in the Senate as long as other incumbents and didn’t have the same name recognition or popularity as other senators facing voters in 2018.