The Alabama Election Is a Referendum on the GOP's Future

The candidacy of Roy Moore pits the Republican Party’s populist insurgents against its establishment—with national implications.

Brynn Anderson / AP

For all the national attention that’s been paid to the grisly particulars of Alabama’s special election over the past few weeks—the lurid details of the sexual-abuse accusations against Roy Moore; the performative shrieks of “Fake News!” from the candidate and his defenders—the true political consequences of the race will likely reach well beyond a single Senate race in 2017.

In fact, many Republicans in Washington believe the voters who are heading to the polls on Tuesday could end up playing a pivotal role in the fight for the soul of the GOP.

Republican leaders have been keeping an especially wary eye on Alabama ever since former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon announced his intention to recruit primary challengers for (virtually) every Republican senator up for reelection in 2018.

“There’s a time and season for everything,” Bannon said in a speech at the Values Voters Summit in October, “and right now it’s a season of war against the GOP establishment.”

Under normal circumstances, Republicans might have dismissed this bit of posturing as little more than made-for-cable bravado. But Bannon’s success in aiding Moore, a right-wing ex-judge with a long history of incendiary stunts and retrograde views, to the Republican nomination had unnerved party leaders. The alarm only grew when Moore—facing credible allegations of sexual abuse and assault—defiantly refused to exit the race, and pledged to fight on without the support of the institutional GOP. Eventually, Moore won back the endorsements of President Trump and the Republican National Committee, even as the rest of the party establishment—most notably the National Republican Senate Committee—continued to maintain its distance.

Now, Republicans in Washington say the outcome of the Alabama race will set the stage for the coming clash between the Republican Party and the Bannonite insurrectionists.

“The stakes are high for both sides,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “It will be a significant moral victory for the Bannon wing of the party if Moore wins, and it’ll be used to recruit candidates in other races.”

Like other establishment-friendly Republicans I talked to, Williams was conflicted about what he hopes will happen in Alabama. On the one hand, he said, “that is a very critical vote, given the makeup of the Senate right now. We’re coming down to basically one vote on every major piece of legislation.” On the other hand, he said a Moore victory would “likely be a disaster” for his party. Republican lawmakers would be constantly hounded by reporters to respond to their new colleague’s latest provocations, and many of them would likely pay an electoral price for their proximity to Moore during next year’s midterms.

“There’s no good options,” he said, sighing. “I’ve tried to focus on happier things, like the holiday season.”

“Roy Moore will be weaponized by Democrats across the country if he wins this cycle,” said Nick Everhart, a GOP strategist who has advised dozens of congressional campaigns. “And long-term, we’re creating a serious generationally defining party-image problem standing by … a guy like Roy Moore.”

Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser and an avowed Bannon ally, said the populist torch-bearers working to Trumpify the GOP have already been “emboldened” by Moore’s stunning primary victory, and by his political resilience in the face of multiple sexual-misconduct allegations. “It proves wrong the establishment mindset that outsized outsiders with personal demons and such—alleged personal demons, I should say—can’t win these races,” he told me.

According to Nunberg, U.S. voters demonstrated definitively in 2016 that they don’t trust the scandal-obsessed news media, and that they don’t care about the improprieties that preoccupy the political class. “Americans want populism,” he said. “They want things to change.”

If Moore wins, as Nunberg expects he will, the Alabama race will be one more data point in support of this theory of the electorate. And of course, if he loses, Nunberg and his fellow Bannonites will know where to point their fingers.

It’s appalling, Nunberg said, that the organs of the GOP establishment—such as the Senate Leadership Fund and the NRSC—“spent millions of dollars trying to destroy Moore during the primary, and now won’t spend a cent to support him in the general.”

If Moore goes down, Nunberg said, it may be necessary for the Bannon-backed candidates who lose primaries next year to indulge in some retribution. “Perhaps the Bannon candidates should endorse the Democrat in the race,” he said, “so Mitch McConnell can see how that works out for him.”