If read that headline and just shook your head in disbelief, allow us a few moments to explain – this is another one of those Only In The Trump Era moments which seem to pile up on a constant basis these days.
The President endorsed Luther Strange, who was appointed to a Senate seat in Alabama after Jeff Sessions became Attorney General, for re-election in the Republican primary – the runoff of which was last night. The choice of Strange was more of a tactical one rather than a strategic decision for Donald Trump; he was running as the incumbent, and he was a vote in the Senate Trump couldn’t afford to lose (actually, given the Senate’s inability to actually pass much of anything in Trump’s legislative agenda, he could well have lost Strange – but nobody knew that at the time).
But more than that, Strange was the choice of the Republican establishment. He was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s man. That he isn’t overly well-liked by Alabama’s Republicans was a relatively minor problem; the money people like him and McConnell figured he was easily controllable.
Trump’s supporters in Alabama seem to like Roy Moore, the somewhat controversial former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who had lost his seat a few years ago for defying a federal court order to remove a memorial to the Ten Commandments from the Supreme Court grounds and whose staunch defense of traditional culture has earned him the abject hatred of the Left; Moore has probably been called every one of the names on Hillary Clinton’s list of deplorables more than any other political figure in America.
Trump’s endorsement of Strange didn’t move the needle much. Moore won last night in just short of a landslide over Strange, in what the local analysts think is much more of a repudiation of McConnell and the Senate’s GOP leadership than of Trump, who remains fairly popular in Alabama.
And over the weekend, Trump had all but backed off his endorsement of Strange. Here’s an ad our buddy Rick Shaftan aired in that state for his Courageous Conservatives PAC on Moore’s behalf…
That clip from Trump is what’s known as pushing the political eject button. Sure, he campaigned for Strange, and so did Vice President Mike Pence, but on Election Day Strange wasn’t really his guy.
And Roy Moore bears Donald Trump precisely ZERO ill will for having endorsed Strange. Those two will be thick as thieves now, as evidenced by the chummy way both tweeted about Trump’s congratulatory phone call to Moore last night. Guess who can’t say that?
Here’s an excerpt from a Breitbart piece posted a week ago…
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his gang of establishment Republicans implored President Donald Trump to campaign for establishment Republican Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) against conservative frontrunner Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, because they reportedly are terrified that more grassroots candidates across the country will challenge establishment Republicans if Moore defeats Strange on Tuesday.
Moore has led in every poll leading up to Tuesday’s runoff in what has been described as the “first proxy battle” between Trump and his former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who has vowed to support the economic nationalist agenda that got Trump elected in the first place.
According to the Washington Post, Trump’s advisers “were deeply divided on whether” Trump “should risk jetting to Alabama to prop up” Strange. But GOP establishment forces reportedly waged “an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to convince Trump that he could carry Strange across the finish line with an appearance in Alabama.”
Though White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was reportedly hesitant about sending Trump to Alabama to potentially waste his political capital, establishment Senate Republicans were “unwilling to let the president turn his attention elsewhere” because they worried that a Strange defeat “could prompt some GOP senators to retire to avoid facing the wrath of anti-establishment voters and the likes of Bannon’s Breitbart News,” according to the Post’s Bob Costa.
He points out that Strange’s establishment consultant Jeff Roe “fed regular updates to Jared Kushner” while establishment consultant Ward Baker, who advises a pro-McConnell super PAC that has reportedly “poured more than $8 million into Alabama to support Strange,” updated Trump and Pence. Pence loyalist Kellyanne Conway reportedly “impressed upon Trump how much power his visit could have in Alabama and reminded him that all five of the candidates he backed in special elections this year won.” And establishment Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who just recently openly questioned Trump’s fitness to be president that in turn got him plenty of plaudits from the legacy press and vicious Never Trumpers, also begged Trump to campaign for Strange.
“You’ve got to go,” Corker reportedly told Trump, according to the Post. “We need you there.”
Yesterday Bob Corker announced he wouldn’t run for re-election next year, making it almost a sure thing that his seat in Tennessee will go to someone much more in tune with the conservative grassroots than the moneyed establishment. That, plus the defeat of the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill at the hands of members of McConnell’s own party and Moore’s victory last night, signaled a trifecta of losses for McConnell which brings into question how much longer he can claim the mantle of leadership.
The Moore victory is also being cast as a victory of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon over the president, as Bannon was on Moore’s team. Something tells us that doesn’t bother Trump, who still likes Bannon, all that much.
What this may amount to is Trump having a lot more leverage over McConnell. Here was a fairly good analysis we ran across yesterday before the Alabama results came in…
Trump did not get this far by not understanding the political map. He knows he is the leader of the White Party, that has been forced to vote within the Republican Party. He certainly never says it like that, but he is an old school New Yorker. He understands the skins game better than most. His opposition is not the Democrats. His enemy is the GOP, that has traditionally served to blunt the interests of the White Party. Therefore, Trump needs to keep the fires burning for the coming fights in the the Republican primaries.
You see glimpses of what’s coming in the Alabama Senate Race. The White Party is lining up behind Judge Moore, mostly because he is not on the side of Mitch McConnell. Trump has endorsed the establishment guy, claiming to do so out of party loyalty. At the same time, an army of Trump surrogates are in the state endorsing Moore. Even Trump has given mixed signals about his endorsement of Luther Strange. There’s a wink-wink quality to all of it. It’s theater and everyone in the audience is in on the gag.
Next year, there will be a bunch of candidates running against GOP incumbents, promising to support the Trump agenda. There will be Democrat challengers making the right noises on immigration and trade. How successful these challengers are will depend a lot upon how things go in Washington the next six months. That’s the message Trump is trying to send to guys like Ryan and McConnell, who seem to be trapped in a fantasy world where the 2016 election never happened and they are beloved figures on the Right.
From Trump’s perspective, the result on Tuesday opens up opportunities. If Strange pulls a miracle and wins the election, then Trump will be tweeting about how he can deliver votes even for a bozo like Strange. If Moore wins, then Trump will tweet that he tried to be loyal to McConnell and the GOP, but they refused to learn from past mistakes. In a few hours, no one will remember that he endorsed the loser. Instead, the story will be about the impending disaster for the establishment GOP in the coming primaries.
Trump is now free to find Roy Moores all across the country and back them, because he can say to McConnell “You can’t get anything done, you can’t mobilize your members and I need a new cast of characters to move my agenda.” And Mitch McConnell has neither the political capital nor the requisite skill to win an intraparty fight with a sitting president.
Is this all a good thing? No. Trump unmoored from the GOP establishment could very well crash and burn. It’s a bad sign that he takes advice from Kushner, who is a Democrat, after all. And if he ends up completely controlling the Republican leadership in Congress there are going to be some policies not reflective of conservative philosophy flying through Capitol Hill.
But between the dodgy, quirky president whose skill in political manipulation seems to be growing and the stodgy, moribund Senate Majority Leader who appears to lack the energy to accomplish much of anything, it’s becoming clear Trump is the better bet. The Strange-Moore race seems to show it.