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

Much has been said about the Alabama Senate race. Was this race a sign of Donald Trump’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 Strange, 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.

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 Brooks (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 Ryan (R-Wisc.). Nehlen got clobbered. Trump toyed with supporting Kelli Ward’s primary challenge to John McCain, 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.  

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 Lee (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 Flake (R-Ariz.)  already has an opponent — the same woman who had run against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Nevada’s Dean Heller (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 Cochran (R-Miss.) in 2014, declared his intention to run against Roger Wicker.

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 Cruz (R-Texas), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and John Barrasso (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.

Tags Alabama Dean Heller Deb Fischer Donald Trump Jeff Flake John Barrasso John McCain Luther Strange Luther Strange Mike Lee Mo Brooks Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Roger Wicker Roy Moore Special Election Ted Cruz Thad Cochran

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