Roy Moore's loss in Alabama on Tuesday dealt a political blow to President Donald Trump, shrank the Republican majority in the Senate and now threatens to further hamstring GOP efforts at legislative achievements.
But among Republican strategists and operatives focused on the 2018 midterms, the reaction to Moore's defeat is, overwhelmingly, a sense of relief.
“[The] real winners tonight are every single Republican candidate facing voters in 2018, who dodged a massive bullet,” said David Kochel, a veteran GOP operative.
Agreed the head of a prominent conservative organization: “Sometimes you win by losing.”
Moore, the Republican Senate candidate who lost in a major upset to Democrat Doug Jones on Tuesday night, faced multiple on-the-record accusations of sexual misconduct with children, though he denied wrongdoing. He also had a long record of making highly incendiary comments about race, religion and sexuality.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee abandoned Moore over the misconduct allegations, but Trump—and ultimately, following Trump’s lead, the Republican National Committee — backed him up.
Headed into Tuesday, Republican strategists were terrified that that embrace of Moore by key elements of the party apparatus would make it even easier for Democrats to tar GOP candidates with the “war on women” moniker they have been pushing for years.
The concern was especially acute for House candidates running in moderate suburban districts across the country, from Orange County, Calif. to the collar counties outside of Philadelphia, where there is potential for deepening anti-Republican backlash, following emerging signs of such a phenomenon in the Virginia governor’s race and statehouse races there last month.
“The outcome is going to make it much more difficult to legislate, but I think we dodged a scarlet letter for the 2018 elections,” said one California GOP consultant. “While I expect Roy Moore will still be a minor issue, he will be nowhere near the issue he’d be if he was lurking on the Senate floor as a Republican in 2018.”
That’s not to say that these Republicans are comfortable with the results. Alabama is one of the most conservative states in the country, and many operatives are furious that the party wound up with a nominee who was so enormously controversial that a near-guaranteed safe seat was lost, pushing the Republican majority in the Senate to a slim 51 seats. Plenty of Republicans see ominous signs for future races, even as they say they avoided catastrophe in Alabama.
“It’s sad to lose a Republican seat in the Senate,” said Ryan Williams, who served as a top spokesman for Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential race. “But thank God we didn’t put an accused child molester in the body. It would have been a travesty to put somebody like that in the Senate. There were no good options for Republicans here.”
Blame for that situation, some Republicans say, sits in part with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who now helms the hard-right outlet Breitbart. He was a vocal backer of Moore’s during the primary runoff and in the general election, and has pledged to be deeply involved in GOP primaries going forward.
“Hopefully voters learn not to listen to people who make the argument that someone like Roy Moore is the right direction for the party,” Williams said. “This is a real blow for the Bannon wing of the party. They can no longer claim their preferred candidate prevails in general elections. That wing of the party took what should have been a slam-dunk race…and threw it away to a Democrat with a candidate who not only turned out to be a loose cannon, but a child molester.”
In a statement, the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC that spent millions, unsuccessfully, against Moore in the GOP Senate primary in Alabama, also blasted Bannon’s “fiasco.”
But there is no evidence that that Bannon wing is taking similar lessons—and ugly Republican primary fights are unlikely to disappear after Alabama, just as they didn’t after primaries in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles that resulted in controversial GOP nominees who lost general elections.
“How do you think the average Republican voter in Missouri is going to look at this race?” shot back Andy Surabian, who works closely with Bannon and is a senior adviser to the pro-Trump Great America Alliance group. “Will they say, ‘oh, that Steve Bannon cost us a race,’ or you think they say to themselves, ‘that damn Mitch McConnell did everything he could to stop Judge Moore?’”
The results in Alabama also offer warnings about the enthusiasm and energy of Democratic-leaning African American voters, and about the willingness of moderate Republicans to rebuke Trump’s party.
Asked whether the results should be viewed as a wake-up call, Mississippi-based GOP strategist Austin Barbour replied, “Hell yes.”
“Yes, it’s a wake-up call,” he said. “It’s a reminder that we have to nominate and elect real conservatives who can win general elections and can govern like conservatives.”
Trump on Wednesday stressed the importance of nominating strong candidates, tweeting, “If last night’s election proved anything, it proved that we need to put up GREAT Republican candidates to increase the razor thin margins in both the House and Senate.”
But as the results from Alabama came in and evidence that suburban Republicans were willing to break with their party emerged, the California Republican consultant suggested that in some districts, being that “GREAT” candidate would mean more distancing from Trump’s most bombastic comments and his hard-edged, sometimes tribal populism.
“When you look at Virginia, and you look at Alabama, we can’t continue down this path and expect to keep our majorities,” the source said. Asked what path that was, Republican replied, “The path of crazytown. This full-throated obnoxious populism just doesn’t work in swing districts, and tonight we saw it fail miserably in one of the reddest states in the country.”