In the aftermath of Roy Moore’s shocking defeat in the Alabama Senate race to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, partisans on both sides are rushing to learn all the wrong lessons. There’s a lot to be said when one of the reddest states in America sends a pro-abortion Democrat to the Senate to caucus against President Trump, a man Alabamans voted for by 27% over Hillary Clinton. But it’s also easy to take too much from one data point.
Here’s what we can learn.
1. There Is A Bridge Too Far For Non-Presidential Voters. The 2016 election featured President Trump running against the most unpopular politician in modern American history, Hillary Clinton. Republicans simply weren’t willing to stay home when Hillary was on the ballot, and certainly not when she was at the top of the ballot. Democrats were willing to stay home, however, and so she lost — even though she won the popular vote by a fairly significant margin. All of which is to say that Republicans learned the wrong lesson from 2016: they figured that the strategy of pointing at Democrats and shouting would allow them to run anyone — literally, anyone — and win. But in Alabama, voters weren’t willing to turn out for a man credibly accused of child molestation. Even before those allegations, Moore was running a shockingly tight race with Jones. But Moore’s unpalatability obviously kept Republicans from coming out to the polls. That means that standards still apply, if only barely.
2. Democrats Are Absolute Fools To Throw Pro-Lifers Out Of Their Party. If Mo Brooks had won the primaries, he’d have taken the seat by double digits. If Luther Strange had won the primaries, he’d have taken the seat by double digits. And if Doug Jones weren’t a pro-abortion fanatic, he’d have won this race by 5 points at minimum. The only reason this race was even relatively close is because Democrats have decided to purge their party of pro-lifers. The result is a polarized politics that turns an automatic win — a race against a guy accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl — into a tight race that Jones was lucky to win.
3. Republicans Are Absolute Fools To Buy Into Steve Bannon’s “Anti-Establishment” Con Game. Moore won the primaries because he was the most famous name in Alabama politics who wasn’t already in elective office. But there’s little doubt he should have dropped out as soon as The Washington Post ran their story alleging his molestation of a 14-year-old girl, and as soon as other allegations began piling on. But Steve Bannon of Breitbart News had decided to jump in front of the parade in Alabama, claiming credit for Moore’s primary victory, then declaring himself the leader of a national insurgency with Moore as one of its faces. This wasn’t a surprise — he did this with Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, and then Trump himself. But Bannon’s shtick meant that Breitbart News became the weaponized research wing of the Moore campaign, dedicated to discrediting Moore’s accusers and blasting out the narrative that Moore was standing tall against the forces of the “establishment” — an “establishment” whose original candidate, Luther Strange, was supported by Trump and who voted with Trump nearly all the time. Furthermore, it meant that Bannon and company cudgeled those on the fence to support Moore rather than pushing him out of the race. Now, Bannon has no definition for the “establishment” other than “the thing I shout in order to get attention”; he has no definition for “nationalist populist” other than “not establishment.” But he has a very definite interest in maintaining his political street cred as a sort of blue collar Robespierre. He doesn’t care whether Republicans win or lose — he’ll just keep on blaming the “establishment” for the candidates he supports losing unlose-able races, and hoping that anti-media, “anti-establishment” ire will carry the day. But Republicans would be fools to think of him as anything but the charlatan he is, considering that he was far more responsible for the Republican Senate majority shrinking to a single vote, endangering Trump’s legislative agenda, than any other supposedly-major political figure.
4. Democrats Are Going To Be Hungry In 2018. The statistics from Virginia and Alabama are grim for Republicans heading into the midterms. Democrats are juiced up, and they’re ready to go. Donald Trump is president because Democrats stayed home for Hillary Clinton. They’re gearing up for their revenge in 2018. Republicans have now been swept out of power in Virginia and just lost a gimme seat in Alabama. And the Republican narrative — show up to vote so that Trump can continue winning — just isn’t having the kind of sway Republicans had hoped.
5. Being Openly Anti-Trump Has Serious Electoral Consequences In A Primary, But Trump Has No Coattails In General Elections. There’s a serious conflict for Republicans between primaries and general elections with regard to President Trump. Trump doesn’t have coattails in either — he backed Strange in the primaries and Moore in the general — but he does have reverse coattails in the primaries, meaning that if you oppose Trump, you’re toast (see Flake, Jeff). That means that a lot of mainstream conservative candidates will be ousted in the primaries, winnowing the field down for the general in a less palatable way. And Trump’s intervention in local races, just like Barack Obama before him, matters very little when the pedal hits the metal.
6. Trump’s Agenda Matters Less Than The Mood. This was obvious from the primaries and the general — Strange and Brooks would have supported Trump’s agenda more heavily than Moore would have. But now it’s clear that Bannon and company were less interested in forwarding Trump’s agenda than in building their own political base apart from Trump. That should anger the president.
The laws of political gravity still seem to apply, despite 2016. That’s terrible news for a Republican Party that seems hellbent on clapping in the hopes that the Hillary Tinkerbell will live again.