The hard-right’s fight for total control of Donald Trump's Washington is just getting started.
The victory of deeply conservative candidate Roy Moore in Tuesday’s hotly contested Alabama Senate primary has emboldened activists and potential candidates alike, threatening to set off a wave of tough GOP races and ushering in a new era of internecine Republican warfare that party leaders had hoped would end when they won control of the government.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a determining factor for a lot of Deep South states, no question,” said Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who lost a hugely controversial primary contest against Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 but is considering another Senate primary run in 2018. “If Alabama can send a true conservative to Washington, and Texas can send a true conservative to Washington, so can Mississippi and Tennessee and Florida and other states.”
Asked, at a Moore rally here the night before the election, whether a Moore victory would make him more inclined to run, McDaniel replied to a small group of reporters: “It certainly plays a role… we’re here to cheer on our friend Roy Moore, and then to begin to prepare, possibly, for a run in 2018.”
Many of the conservative grassroots’ most prominent media and political figures endorsed Moore, who beat out incumbent Sen. Luther Strange despite the endorsement Strange received from Trump. Led by Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, they sought to make the race a referendum on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has grown increasingly unpopular with the base. And they took Moore’s win as a sign that other incumbents will be vulnerable to the same kind of anti-Washington messaging, even though it’s the Republican Party that controls the White House, the House and the Senate.
“If you can defeat a guy like Luther Strange by simply tying him to Mitch McConnell, what does that mean for guys like Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, who are literally Never Trumpers, or a guy like Roger Wicker, who’s in Senate leadership?” said Andy Surabian, a senior adviser to Great America Alliance, a group with close ties to Bannon that supported Moore in Alabama. His comment was in reference to GOP senators from Arizona, Nevada and Mississippi. “I hope none of them have a long-term lease in Washington D.C.”
As conservative groups plot their next moves, many are quietly looking for primary races where they can be on the same side as Trump, or at least not directly at odds with him, as was the case in Alabama, an unusual contest that scrambled typical GOP alliances.
There are a number of open primary Senate contests for seats in which Republicans are challenging Democrats, and another open Senate seat, Tennessee, came online Tuesday as GOP Sen. Bob Corker announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection. There are also several House primaries underway—and then there are the seats held by GOP senators deemed by the grassroots as too “establishment.”
“I think [Moore’s victory] would embolden a lot more people who are conservative, have conservative values, to step forward and say, ‘let’s start turning this thing around,’” said former Florida state Rep. Mike Hill, a Trump backer who is running again in 2018 and whose team spoke briefly about his race with Bannon at the Moore rally. “It could have a ripple effect.”
Arizona is an obvious next priority for many of these Trump-aligned activists and organizations.
There, Flake—a frequent and vocal Trump critic whom Trump has clashed with repeatedly—is already facing a primary challenge from Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully primaried Sen. John McCain last cycle but this time around has received Twitter support from Trump. Pro-Ward efforts have been boosted by major Trump donor Robert Mercer, who is close to Bannon. Eric Beach, the co-chair of Great America Alliance who is also assisting Ward, devoted space to the race in a broader USA Today op-ed published after Alabama.
“Establishment, beware,” he wrote. “We’re coming for you in 2018.”
Asked for comment, Will Allison, Flake’s campaign spokesman, responded: "Senator Flake is a principled conservative fighting every day for the people of Arizona. We’re building a winning campaign powered by strong fundraising and a dominant ground game."
Some conservative activists have also turned their attention to the Nevada Senate race. Trump, as president, hasn’t been as critical of Heller as he has been of Flake, but some see an opportunity to highlight Heller’s past criticism of Trump from the 2016 campaign, something they expect will rile up a conservative base already miffed that Hillary Clinton won Nevada (though Heller said last month—close to a year after the election—that he did vote for Trump).
On Tuesday night, Heller’s primary challenger, Danny Tarkanian, tweeted his congratulations to Moore and added: “Primary voters showed they'll drain the swamp across country.” In an interview with McClatchy ahead of the election, he argued that Heller would be in a weaker position with the staunchly pro-Trump GOP base than Strange was, because Strange embraced Trump.
“I haven’t seen that Luther Strange was a Never Trumper, that he did anything against Trump,” said Tarkanian, who has run for office multiple times before but met with Bannon recently. “On the contrary, Heller was one of the first Never Trumpers in Nevada. He cost Trump the election in Nevada.”
Flake and Heller have both backed important pieces of Trump’s policy agenda—including the failed efforts, so far, to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“Despite millions of dollars spent on his behalf, perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian’s poor judgment has been rejected by Nevadans every time he’s run for office,” said Keith Schipper, a spokesman for the Heller campaign. “While Danny is running his sixth losing campaign into the ground, Dean Heller is working with President Trump to get things done for Nevada.”
Republican strategists stress that the Alabama primary should not be taken as representative of the rest of the country. Alabama is a deeply conservative state—much more so than places such as Arizona and Nevada—and the Strange-Moore race was complicated by a variety of local factors.
Indeed, while some voters in interviews here slammed Strange’s ties to McConnell, whose allies spent heavily on his race, many others were more focused on his ties to ex-Gov. Robert Bentley, who appointed Strange to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Bentley went on to resign amid a scandal.
“It helps to remember that Alabama is its own brand in many ways, and what happens in Alabama may not tell us a lot about what happens in a closer swing state, like Arizona or Nevada,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “An Alabama primary is not necessarily the same as an Arizona or Nevada Republican primary. Those three states have very different demographics, very different political dynamics. We all want to make open-and-shut cases from one contest, and you just can’t do that.”
A national Republican strategist involved in pro-Strange efforts also downplayed the idea that Trump’s base—much of which defied the president to support Moore—is as conservative or as potent in other states.
“It’s hard to apply internal Alabama politics to all the other races, especially in places where Trump is not as popular,” said the strategist. “I’d say the high-water mark for his support in states with primaries will be Alabama.”
But at Moore’s rally here on the eve of the election, Bannon made clear that he and his allies aren’t stopping at Alabama.
“There’s a time and season for everything under heaven. And sometimes there’s a time for peace. And sometimes there’s a time for war,” he told a raucous, religious revival-style crowd packed into a barn.
“Yeah!” a woman yelled back.
“We’re not going to hug out our differences,” he continued. “We’re going to have to fight for our differences.”