Whatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong

Whatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong
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Much has been said about the Alabama Senate race. Was this race a sign of Donald TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE’s waning ability to be a kingmaker? Was it a sign that anti-Trump forces are winning a war against him for Republican’s hearts and minds?

Whoever won the race was of course going to announce that the things they did had caused the victory. But just like as is the case with my fellow Cleveland Indians fans, it is likely that everything all of the outside actors did had little to do with the outcome. Ultimately, it’s all about who the players are and what they do on the field.

The Alabama primary runoff (the general election is Dec. 12) featured two candidates with distinctively Alabamian strengths and weaknesses. The incumbent, former Attorney General 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, was appointed to the seat by scandal-tarred Governor Robert Bentley (R), in what was seen by some as a quid pro quo for Strange’s decision earlier not to advocate for Bentley’s impeachment. Challenger Roy Moore (R) has a long history of provocation as Alabama U.S. chief justice and, earlier, as an Alabama circuit court judge.

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He had been at the center of a national controversy over whether the Ten Commandments could be displayed at an Alabama courthouse. Trump endorsed Strange; many of the populist individuals and organizations who had been essential to Trump’s victory, including Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon, rallied behind Moore. To make things even more complicated, the Trumpiest candidate to run for the seat, congressman Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksGOP lawmaker blasts Omar and Tlaib: Netanyahu right to block 'enemies' of Israel Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (R-Ala.), finished third in the initial primary voting on Aug. 15.   

What can we say about the spectator’s actions? We know from the 2016 election that Donald Trump has yet to demonstrate that he can help anyone other than himself win elections. Trump lent his vocal support to two and a half Republican candidates in 2016.

He backed Renee Ellmers in her incumbent-vs-incumbent primary battle in North Carolina. Ellmers lost big time — not because of Trump, but because her opponent — George Holding (R-N.C) was simply better, and better known. Trump backed Paul Nehlen’s bid to unseat House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan moving family to Washington Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington Ex-Parkland students criticize Kellyanne Conway MORE (R-Wisc.). Nehlen got clobbered. Trump toyed with supporting Kelli Ward’s primary challenge to John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Anti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid McCain's family, McCain Institute to promote #ActsOfCivility in marking first anniversary of senator's death MORE, but reversed himself under pressure from the GOP Senate leadership. Ward lost, performing about as well as McCain’s 2010 challenger had.

The groups supporting Moore — most notably, the Mercer family’s super PACs — had, perhaps, one more victorious candidate among their roster of unconventional endorsements — Trump himself. They had no history with Moore, with social conservatives of Moore’s type, or even with Alabama politics.

The Mercers spent over $22 million in 2016 on several candidates, some of whom won, but it is hard to argue that their spending made a difference for any of these candidates except, maybe, for Trump. In a special election, however, there are no other races on the ballot to distract the media, and somebody has to win.  

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So why all the fuss? Trump’s support for Strange shows the GOP leadership that he is still willing to play ball with them. This matters more to Trump than would a Strange victory. The pile-on by the forces of Steve Bannon and his super PAC buddies shows that the money is out there to make life miserable for mainstream Republicans. It does not suggest that Bannon, the Mercer family, or anyone else have the resources to defeat incumbents, but it will certainly be part of the calculus for Senate Republicans who will be on the ballot in 2018.

The track record of primary challengers is not good — apart from the unusual case of Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell, allies lean into Twitter, media 'war' Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE (R-Utah) no senate Republican had lost his or her seat to a primary challenger since 2002. Among the scattered number of incumbents who have suffered such a fate, however, are several who were, like Strange, recently appointed to it by the governor. Moore was a good bet for insurgent forces simply because he was a weak incumbent who was likely to lose anyway. Victory could be claimed whether or not it was deserved.

In the aftermath of the race, it is allegedly open season for primary challenges to mainstream Republican incumbents. The New York Times framed Moore’s 55 to 45 percent victory as a “blow to party leaders” and quoted Steven Bannon’s proclamation that this was the beginning a a populist “revolution.” The Washington Post deliriously announced that the result was a “political lightning strike,” a warning to GOP leaders, and a sign of a worsening civil war within the Republican Party. Republican incumbents up for renomination in 2018 should all worry.

But who are these incumbents? 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.)  already has an opponent — the same woman who had run against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Nevada’s Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (R) already has one, too — Danny Tarkanian, who has run unsuccessfully for office five times in the past twelve years. And, after the race Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who ran a close race against Senator Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE (R-Miss.) in 2014, declared his intention to run against Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks The Hill's Morning Report - How will Trump be received in Dayton and El Paso? Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill MORE.

We have three people who have run before, who don’t necessarily have anything in common, who are now able to present themselves as the beachhead of some sort of invading force. And we have donors such as the Mercers able to claim that they have started something. The remaining Republican incumbents seeking reelection — Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters MORE (R-Texas), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerThe 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow GOP senator introduces bill banning 'addictive' social media features MORE (R-Neb.), Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump to award racing legend Roger Penske with Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators MORE (R-Utah), and John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoIf Democrats want gun control, they must first concede defeat Conway: Republican concerns about gun reform 'all reconcilable' Five proposals Congress is eyeing after mass shootings MORE (R-Wyo.) — do not yet have primary opponents, and probably won’t.

So this, in the end, is what happened: a weak incumbent who never won election on his own lost to a well-known opponent, and as a result the number of Republican primary contests for 2016 goes from two to perhaps three.

People who supported a candidate who would have been able to win without their support are able to claim victory. This, in a nutshell, is the Republican primary problem. It is a real “problem” only if the media buy into the dubious claims made by the fans on the sidelines.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.