Alabama is wake-up call for Trump and Bannon to look past the base

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE and Stephen Bannon forgot that there’s a difference between “southern” and “neo-confederate.” On Tuesday, they paid for it. Their man, Roy Moore, an accused pedophile with an unrepentant disdain for modernity and a soft spot for slavery, lost to Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor and Democrat.

With their unalloyed messages of resentment and rage, Trump and Bannon have inadvertently breathed new life into the Democratic “coalition of the ascendant,” an electoral alliance of college educated whites, minority voters and younger Americans. In Alabama’s special election, the South rose, just not in the way the president and his former chief political strategist had predicted.

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As was the case in the Virginia governor’s race, upscale white voters broke with the Republican Party, African-American turnout increased, and rural white voters stayed home. For the record, Alabamians under 45 went for Jones by better than three-to-two, while he captured the votes of college graduates by more than 10 points, and minority voters by a 77 percent margin. Back in the day, Jones, then a U.S. attorney, had sent two Klansmen to prison for life for bombing a church and killing four girls.

With the 2018 election cycle now upon us, these trends have national Republicans on edge. Just minutes after Jones’s victory, Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic field narrows with Inslee exit MORE (R-Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, expressed his wish that Jones vote with Senate Republicans. Yet, while Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (R-Ky.) and his aides strive to internalize this emerging reality, it is uncertain whether Trump is constitutionally capable of doing so, and even less likely that Bannon cares to. Slash and burn politics brought both men to where they are, and as Jared Kushner said of his father-in-law, 71-year-old men are unlikely to change any time soon. For once, Kushner looks like he’s right.

After Trump slut-shamed Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate Gillibrand unveils mental health plan MORE (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday for having the temerity to call for his resignation over allegations of sexual harassment, the president was busy disassociating himself Wednesday morning from the stench of Moore’s humiliating defeat in a haze of deflection. To be precise, at 6:22 a.m. Eastern time, our commander in chief tweeted, “The reason I originally endorsed Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeGOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama The Hill's Morning Report — US strikes approved against Iran pulled back MORE (and his numbers went up mightily), is that I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election. I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!”

Numbers went up mightily? Decked stacked him? Trump may as well have said that he was for the Iraq War before he was against it. Apparently, Trump forgot, no one forced him to back Moore. In the run up to Tuesday, Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? In-space refueling vs heavy lift? NASA and SpaceX choose both Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown MORE, Alabama’s senior senator, announced that he would not vote for Moore, while Trump’s attorney general and former Alabama senator Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsA better way to run the Federal Bureau of Prisons Trump admin erases key environmental enforcement tool DOJ should take action against China's Twitter propaganda MORE refused to say for whom he cast his ballot. The fact is that in a single cycle in a single state, Trump backed two losing candidates.

As for Bannon, don’t bet on the ex-Navy officer cutting, running or retreating. Within the past three months, Bannon helped guide Moore to winning the Republican runoff and declared war on the Republican Senate. Fueled with the Mercer family checkbook and Trump’s approval, Bannon let the Republican establishment know that it was in his crosshairs, as he stated, “Nobody can run and hide on this one, these folks are coming for you.”

To be sure, Bannon has already notched his share of scalps. Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeAnti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid Arpaio considering running for former sheriff job after Trump pardon Overnight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) have since announced they will not seek reelection. But Bannon is also the guy who trashed the University of Alabama on the eve of the special election, letting the world know that he made it to Harvard and Georgetown. #rolltide? Not so much.

If Trump is the face of the Republican Party then Bannon is its soul, and therein lies the GOP’s dilemma. In these polarized times, the Republican base grows ever angrier, making the GOP primary playbook ever more likely morph into a roadmap for driving over a cliff come November. Whether the Republicans can do anything about that remains to be seen.

Jones’s win is a reminder that running statewide is not the same thing as running for Congress with more money and a louder megaphone. Rather, it is about speaking to a larger population with varied concerns. Nuance still matters, and being normal counts. During the Obama years, the Democrats forgot these rules and saw their party get hollowed out, losing control of both houses of Congress, as well as governorships and state legislatures aplenty. Hopefully, the Republicans will get a grip soon enough. Just don’t bet on it.

Lloyd Green was the opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and later served in the U.S. Department of Justice.