Alabama's GOP Primary Is Just a Preview

Despite controlling all three branches of government, Republican voters are still angry with their representation in Congress.

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

Alabama is usually such a happy place for Republicans. The state is not merely blood red; its conservatives thrill to the culture-war revanchism that the GOP has been peddling for decades. (I know plenty of Alabamans—family, mostly—who have felt sneered at and let down since George Wallace failed to become president.)

But then came this year’s special Senate primary, and things turned ass-over-teacup for the party. After all the money and effort spent on boosting Luther Strange (the guy appointed to Jeff Sessions’s seat when he decamped for the Cabinet), the prize ultimately went to the flagrantly batty Roy Moore. This despite Donald Trump’s taking his carnival barker act down South to sing Big Luther’s praises in person.

With Moore now polling a mere handful of points ahead of his Democratic challenger (in Alabama!), party leaders are understandably perturbed—gnaw-your-nails-bloody-and-sleep-with-a-bottle-of-Johnny-Walker perturbed. The situation is made all the worse by Moore’s win emboldening ousted White House adviser Stephen Bannon to declare war on Senate Republicans who he sees as thwarting his alt-righty dreams, with a special focus on team captain Mitch McConnell.

But now is no time for weepy regret. The establishment is scrambling to learn from its ’Bama butt-whooping, in the hopes of correcting course, reshaping the narrative, and avoiding a wave of Moore-ish upsets in next year’s midterm primaries.

For starters, Republican leaders desperately want to keep people from reading too much into Alabama. The field and the combatants were unusual, they insist. For two decades, Moore has been a folk hero to many religious conservatives; former state Attorney General Strange, meanwhile, carried the stigma of being tapped for the Senate by disgraced Governor Robert Bentley—who at the time was being investigated by Strange for sex-scandally misconduct and who was eventually driven from office. So the first lesson, chuckled Steven Law, head of the McConnell-tied Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC committed to nurturing the party’s majority: “If somebody who is about to go to jail offers to appoint you to the U.S. Senate, you should say no.”

More seriously, said Law, “That particular race had certain structural elements to it that at the outset we weren’t fully cognizant of.”

Strange’s association with Bentley was “more toxic than people in D.C. realized,” said another senior GOP operative. Long after stories about Bentley faded from the media, the stench stuck. “It was something folks were talking about at church and at the salon.”

More generally, the Alabama electorate is seen as a special breed. Said the operative, “I think Alabama—when you look at other states we’re going to be playing in that potentially have primary challenges—the makeup of the state is very different.”

Alabama’s specialness aside, it does offer lessons for the broader political landscape, say leaders. Law, in fact, laid out many of these in a memo to his PAC’s “investors” last month on how “the playbook for winning Republican primaries needs to be recalibrated and improved” to inspire “an electorate that has dramatically realigned itself with President Trump at the helm.”

Lesson #1: Candidates must never forget that their voters remain seriously ticked off. “After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Democratic voters spent about a year in a cloud of euphoric giddiness, feeling like things were wonderful,” Law told me. “This is not the mood Republican voters are in. They are expectant, frustrated, unhappy with pace of change in Washington.”

In his memo, Law noted that Moore had a “combative and politically incorrect style” that happily reminded focus group participants of Trump. By contrast, the “cautious,” “genial” Strange had an “affable demeanor and soft banter” that “were pitch-perfect for Birmingham business audiences, but seemed out of tune with more conservative voters.”

“Republicans are in a feisty and confrontational mood, and they want to see their leaders show some energy and fight,” Law told me.

Mild-mannered candidates take note: Time to start cultivating your rage. (Is there such a thing as reverse meditation?)

Unsurprisingly, the continued existence of Obamacare really makes the base crazy. “When the Senate failed to push the repeal, it was like dropping a huge magnet on the table,” said Law. “All Republican voters suddenly realigned around that issue.”

To try and deal with this “fiasco,” Law has urged candidates to “highlight” how hard they personally worked to kill Obamacare and “challenge those who stood in the way of delivering on this core GOP promise.”

Of course, the problem goes way beyond Obamacare. With President Obama gone, the Republican Congress has emerged as the all-purpose bogeyman of its own base. For this, they can thank their president. Wrote Law, “This narrative is driven by Trump himself, and it resonates with primary voters who believe the Republican Congress ‘isn’t doing enough’ (as we frequently heard in focus groups) to advance the President’s agenda.”

How incumbents choose to run against their own conference is a deeply personal matter. But all Republican senators should keep in mind that a big chunk of their base pretty much hates them.

Digging into the nitty-gritty, Alabama also revealed the power of old-fashioned media, specifically radio. “In Alabama, talk radio was a dominant factor,” said Law. “A lot of people point to information flow over the internet. But in Alabama and a lot of other states, Republican primary voters live on talk radio.” In his memo, he noted that local hosts are almost as influential as national celebs like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham “and are much more receptive to cultivation.” Anywhere an incumbent could be “challenged from the right,” asserted Law, “talk radio must be a top priority for earned media outreach.”

And what of Steve Bannon’s declaration of war? Party leaders acknowledge they must find the right balance between taking him too seriously (thus giving him additional stature) and not seriously enough (allowing him too much freedom to make mischief).

Thus far, the approach seems to be that, every now and again, lawmakers and other party veterans will cut loose with a little Bannon bashing. The Hill recently ran a piece featuring multiple GOP Senators downplaying Bannon’s threat, suggesting he was backing unelectable candidates, and predicting that he would eventually wise up and back down.

Karl Rove, meanwhile, took to the Wall Street Journal to fire both barrels at Bannon’s “motley crew of challengers.”

No question, party leaders are miffed about the storyline that Bannon was a key player in Alabama—which they blame largely on “hyperventilation” by the national media. He brought neither money nor infrastructure to the game, sniffed the operative, who characterized Bannon’s basic contributions as holding a couple of rallies and mouthing off to the media.

“I’ll give him credit for being a pretty effective huckster,” said another strategist. “He sees where the wind is blowing, jumps in front of it, and acts as if he caused the effects.”

Determined not to let Bannon’s reputation grow any larger, Law and others aggressively dismiss his recruiting efforts as “increasingly desperate” and pooh-pooh claims that he is poaching big donors. “You saw the fundraising report for quarter three and the pledges for the upcoming quarter. Our fundraising is on fire," said Law. And while donors, like garden-variety voters, are frustrated over the lack of progress, Law expressed confidence that they won’t defect to Team Bannon—even if things get worse.

“If we were to fail to get tax reform done, a lot of Republican donors would holster their wallets,” he told me. “I think even in that circumstance, they would not buy into a Bannon worldview that would really harm the party for years and years to come.”

Leaders are also pushing candidates to think carefully before snuggling up to Bannon. (This is a particularly touchy issue in races where Bannon is backing folks recruited by the party, such as Missouri, Tennessee, and Ohio.) Said Law, “We’re warning that if you wrap yourself around Steve Bannon, you’re going to wind up having to answer for all his toxic views and statements that are well known and will be replayed by Democrats next fall.”

For all the headaches and heartaches it has caused the GOP this fall, Alabama may turn out to be a clarifying moment for the party—or, alternatively, a harbinger of things to come.