Roy Moore’s likely victory in Tuesday’s Alabama Republican Senate primary is expected to embolden like-minded challengers to GOP incumbents next year, reopening a politically perilous intraparty fissure that will sandwich President Donald Trump between anxious party leaders and his boiling base.
Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has led in every public poll against Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill the seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February by a scandal-plagued governor. Three new surveys all place Moore up by double digits, solidifying his position as the front-runner.
A raft of Washington-powered Republicans sought to rescue Strange in the closing days of the runoff campaign. A super PAC backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars for additional negative television ads against Moore. Trump held a mega-rally for Strange in Huntsville on Friday and called into a local radio show on Monday, repeatedly butchering Moore’s first name. Vice President Mike Pence planned to land in the state Monday evening for an 11th-hour event on behalf of Strange at the Birmingham airport.
The cavalry might not be enough – partly because the deeply religious and socially conservative Moore has attracted his own formidable troops who exemplify the most animated segment of the party right now.
Last week, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka at a rally to whip up enthusiasm for Moore. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon will appear on Sean Hannity’s Fox program Monday night from the site of Moore’s closing campaign event. And even before those luminaries got involved, Moore had acquired a loyal following for his defiance of modern culture and his emphasis on the importance of God in government.
“It is the true Christian conservative, Ralph Reed, evangelical voter – the single-issue, social-issues voters that have always been with Moore and will always be with Moore. No one’s bouncing out of bed tomorrow and saying, ‘Let’s go elect Luther Strange!'” says Apryl Marie Fogel, an Alabama political consultant and former congressional staffer.
A Moore win would send shudders through Washington and reverberate around the country for a host of reasons. For one, it would demonstrate that the anti-establishment movement that Trump stoked and rode to victory last year may no longer require the man himself.
“While Mr. President, we love you and Alabama supports you and Alabama voted for you, we don’t need you coming to Alabama and telling Alabama who they need to vote for for the next U.S senator from this state,” Matt Murphy, an Alabama radio host, said from the stage of Moore’s Thursday evening rally.
One attendee at that event hoisted a blue placard that read: “Mr. President and Mr. V.P. I love you, but You are Wrong! AMERICA needs JUDGE MOORE.”
Even the president has hedged on his endorsement in the race, openly acknowledging Friday that he “might’ve made a mistake” in coming out publicly for Strange, the decided underdog.
If Strange loses, the president’s political power will be severely deflated, potentially making it harder for him to cajole wavering lawmakers to get behind his languishing legislative agenda.
But many conservatives hope – and mainline Republicans fear – a Strange defeat also would trigger a flood of anti-establishment fervor that would propel primary campaigns against sitting members of Congress.
Bill Armistead, Moore’s campaign chairman, hopes Tuesday’s result will force the president to rethink his approach to primary races going forward, as well as inspire a fleet of conservatives to place their names on the ballot in 2018.
“I think it changes his approach to primary elections. I think he will see that there is a real movement, not only in Alabama, but America – a movement to get conservatives to go to Washington to fight,” Armistead says. “There are a lot of good conservative folks out there that want to run for the Senate and take some RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] out. That’s going to embolden conservatives in lots of states looking and saying, ‘If Roy Moore can do it, I can do it.'”
One place where that scenario could materialize quickly is in neighboring Mississippi, where GOP state Sen. Chris McDaniel is weighing a primary challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker.
McDaniel, who fell just short in his bid to knock off Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, tells U.S. News that Bannon has already encouraged him to pursue the race and that he would like to make a decision by next month.
“The way the American people view Washington right now, I think insurgent campaigns are going to be more and more likely and I think Bannon brings a high degree of intellect and energy to the table to help,” McDaniel says. “He’s a friend and I consider him an ally and I think he’s doing great work. Sometimes all an insurgent needs is some positive direction.”
Bannon, who is back at the helm of Breitbart News, has weaponized his website against Strange’s candidacy by publishing a flurry of stories on the race – many of which read like full-blown promotions of Moore’s bid.
McDaniel is keeping close tabs on the Alabama contest, and says he sees many similarities to his own would-be candidacy.
“There are quite a few parallels. The most distinct one is we need change and the establishment is standing in the way. Roy Moore brings a combatant spirit. He’s not afraid to stand his ground. He’s willing to push back on principle. He’s a courageous person,” McDaniel says.
A McDaniel challenge to Wicker would only add to the existing roster of tantalizing 2018 GOP primaries, which features Kelli Ward’s challenge to Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona and Danny Tarkanian’s bid against Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada. Last month, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee – who has yet to announce whether he’ll run for re-election – drew his first primary challenger in Andy Ogles, the head of a chapter of the Charles and David Koch-funded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
No one race is completely transferable to the next, but a Moore win undoubtedly would show political outsiders and upstarts that a candidate can be vastly outspent on the airwaves, absorb opposition by Trump and still be successful.
“It’s the perfect storm for moderate Republicans in the Senate,” Fogel warns. “Money isn’t enough anymore.”