On December 12 Democrat Doug Jones narrowly defeated Judge Roy Moore in a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) to serve as President Donald Trump’s attorney general. While on the surface Jones’s victory signals a turnover of just one seat in the narrowly divided upper chamber, it points to potentially huge – possibly fatal – consequences for Trump’s presidency.
First, there’s the numbers in the Senate to consider. Today, Republicans hold a nominal 52-48 edge, “nominal” because there is a handful of “squeaky wheel” Republicans who on most issues would prefer to vote with the Democrats anyway and whose votes can only be purchased at extortive price. This means that the Republican leadership – which itself has an uneasy and at times contentious relationship with Trump – doesn’t really have a working majority in the Senate. The flip of just the Alabama seat (meaning a net shift of two votes, one loss for the GOP and one gain for the Democrats) to 51-49 means that on any vote the Republicans can afford the defection of just one senator to the Democrats’ monolithic bloc, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote.
This means that the Republican Senate is crippled. Any one GOP senator has near-veto power over anything he (or very likely, she) pleases. While the Republicans still hope they can get their tax bill conferenced, voted on, and on Trump’s desk before January when Jones takes over the Alabama seat, that legislation may signal not only the first but also the last and only major legislative achievement the Republicans can point to before next year’s election. (Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) has already called for the final tax vote to be put off until after Jones is seated.) As we move into the 2018 campaign year, we can expect what amounts to a complete shutdown of already meager legislative activity and a total roadblock of Executive nominations. Of particular concern will be if a Supreme Court justice dies or retires.
Result: The Democrats are in a strong position to frustrate anything resembling a Trump legislative agenda or even (they are not the same thing) a Republican agenda, allowing them to claim in 2018 that Trump and the GOP have failed to deliver on their promises.
Second, the fact that the GOP could lose in Alabama, one of the most conservative, Republican, and pro-Trump states in the country, is ominous. A month ago Republicans were badly defeated in an off-year state election in Virginia. The Old Dominion calamity, however, could be blamed on both the Republican candidates’ attempt to straddle the intraparty conflict between the GOP’s populist-nationalist and establishment wings (about which more below) and on Virginia’s increasingly inhospitable demographics (between the influx of federal government employees and contractors and of both legal and illegal immigrants, the heavily populous suburbs near Washington, DC, are less part of Virginia than they are a mélange of Massachusetts and El Salvador, and vote accordingly). There are no such excuses available in Alabama. Simply put, if Republicans can’t reliably win there, they can’t win anywhere.
Granted, Moore himself was the target of unproven, decades-old of sexual allegations fueled by the national hysteria over groping and other misconduct and hyped by the major media. Not coincidentally, the media also gave prime coverage to a rehash of accusations against Trump just a day before the Alabama vote to set up Trump and Moore as the molester twins. The Democrats, who recently defenestrated Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan), despite the latter being a civil rights “icon” in the description of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, have positioned themselves to play “identity” politics with women as they have with “people of color,” notably in the Black Lives Matter movement.
This showed in the Alabama voting. One verdict: “#BlackWomen Are The Reason Why Roy Moore Lost The Alabama Senate Race.” While Jones lost white women overall, he did much better among them than Barack Obama did, no doubt largely due to the sex allegations against Moore. Plus, Jones outspent Moore 10-to-1, as the national Democrats poured in money largely aimed at mobilizing African-Americans – a whopping 96 percent of whom supported Jones, similar to Obama’s 95 percent support among blacks in 2012. A last-minute push by George Soros-funded operatives to register felons to vote can’t have hurt either; of course reference to such activity is open-and-shut proof of anti-Semitism as well as racism.
By contrast, Republicans were divided and many stayed home. Compared with the 2016 presidential turnout, the Republican vote in Alabama fell by 51 percent, while the Democratic turnout declined by only eight percent. The Republican National Committee, which had earlier shut off support to Moore when the sexual allegations surfaced, turned it back on only after Trump came out in support of Moore. The Republican Senatorial Committee stiff-armed him to the end.
For the GOP the more disruptive subtext is the feud between the populist-nationalist wing of the party personified by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and an establishment faction symbolized by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). Moore’s candidacy was the first litmus test of Bannon’s ability to deliver on his threat to recruit populist candidates to defeat establishment GOP incumbents. Moore’s loss seriously damages the credibility of Bannon’s ability to deliver.
Keep in mind that even if there had not been a single sexual allegation against Moore much of the GOP establishment would still have been desperate to keep him out of the Senate. A longtime favorite with populists and, especially, with Christian social conservatives, Moore was twice removed as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing an order from the federal courts to remove a depiction of the Ten Commandments he had installed on the Court’s official premises. He is outspoken in his hostility to Islam and anything related to the LGBT agenda, and has voiced a positive attitude toward Vladimir Putin. (Moore allegedly was a Putin puppet, just like Trump.)
Result: The Democrats are united and can deliver to the polls their anti-Trump base, bolstered by media hype of sexual misconduct allegations and racial identity politics. Republicans are divided, demoralized, and unfocused.
Given the disunity within his own party, it is strange to note the lack of serious engagement by Trump himself. To be sure, as President and leader of the party, Trump has to try to balance factions to try to get his agenda through Congress – a balancing act that so far has produced few results. Also, he knows that in their preferences, many if not most GOP officeholders are not on his side; they’re happy to work with him on tax cuts (a perennial Republican favorite) but most are indifferent or hostile to his views on immigration and trade. That said, as with his habit of staffing his administration with people who disagree with his campaign promises (which soon will likely yield a cabinet even more out of touch with his populist and America First agendas, particularly as relates to neoconservative dominance in foreign and security policy) he seems only partially aware of the need to support Republicans who are more aligned with him and his agenda over those who don’t.
Thus, Moore’s loss will likely only reinforce Trump’s ongoing metamorphosis into a standard, off-the-shelf Republican, in substance if not in rhetoric. Sadly, that will not be his salvation if he cannot find a way to ensure that the Virginia and Alabama debacles are not replicated next year. Given Republican internecine bloodletting and his opponents’ success so far in blocking Trump’s initiatives, the Democrats are anticipating big wins in next year’s Congressional races. Even given the fact that they have many more Senate seats to defend than the GOP does, they hope a sweep similar to what happened in Virginia could put them in control of that body. The path is harder for getting control of the House, where the Democrats would have to flip 24 seats, but their chances are growing better by the day.
The outcome of the 2018 elections is critical to Trump’s political future. If the Democrats take the House, Trump certainly will be impeached – whether on some collateral, concocted “RussiaGate” charge (like “obstruction”) or on sexual misconduct antedating his election is irrelevant. He then would be removed, even if the Republicans retain control of the Senate. Unlike Democrats, who uniformly rallied around Bill Clinton when he was impeached – not a single Democrat senator voted to remove him – there are undoubtedly many Republicans who would jump at the chance to get him out of office and replace him with Pence.