The Alabama Senate race is days away, but already, top Republicans are admitting defeat.
Whether their candidate, Roy Moore, overcomes multiple on-the-record accusations of child molestation and sexual misconduct to win on Dec. 12 or not, top party officials concede that Alabama has been a disaster for the national brand — and either result will put the Republican congressional majorities in jeopardy.
“There’s no outcome here in which the Republican Party can say, ‘Well, that turned out OK,’ no outcome where we can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who is close to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Both outcomes are bad for the overall health and brand of the Republican Party.”
If Moore wins, Republicans fear that candidates up and down the ballot will be forced to answer for his every alleged action and confirmed comment, as the Senate grapples with whether to seat him. If he loses to Democrat Doug Jones, then the Republican hold on the Senate majority will grow even more tenuous, threatening to grind congressional action to a halt and fueling progressives on the left.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“If [Republicans] lose, the lesson is, you nominate a far-right wing nutcase candidate, you’re going to lose the seat,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “If he wins, then the lesson is, you nominate a far-right wing nutcase candidate, then it puts the party in an impossible situation where you’ve got someone deemed not fit to serve in the body to which he’s been elected.”
Certainly, the Alabama special election is unique, and operatives warn against extrapolating too much from the unusual circumstances unfolding in one of the reddest states in the country. And Moore’s team puts all of the blame for any tarnishing of the Republican brand on the GOP itself: “Those who have tarred the party brand are the self-dealing, establishment Republicans who were also quick to pile on the judge because they saw it as a way of bullying a conservative outsider to get out of the race,” said senior Moore campaign adviser Brett Doster.
But as the race hurtles to a close, this is how top Republicans say they got here—and what both sides say they can learn for the next race, according to interviews with a dozen senior Republican and Democratic campaign operatives.
Trump may be president, but the base is still furious with GOP-controlled Washington
Moore was once considered an underdog in the Senate GOP primary. His opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, had the full support of Washington, from McConnell and his big-spending outside group allies to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to the White House, as Strange fought to maintain the seat to which he had been appointed by ex- Gov. Robert Bentley, who later resigned amid a sex scandal.
But being visibly boosted by Washington can backfire with a base that can’t stand D.C., and Trump alone can’t fix that.
“Because the establishment so openly embraced his campaign, that had a sort of reverse halo effect,” said GOP strategist Chris Wilson, stressing that Strange is a conservative and that he was not accusing anyone of making mistakes. But, he added, to the extent “that any campaign resembles a manifestation of the establishment, it’s likely going to be rejected by primary voters.”
The pro-Trump base remains deeply angry with a Republican-controlled Congress that has yet to notch significant legislative achievements. Lawmakers hope that a successful tax reform deal could turn that tide, but for now, conservatives are inclined to reject anyone perceived as too close to the D.C. establishment — a dynamic with serious implications for future GOP primary contests, where the base is most influential.
A senior Alabama GOP strategist said that the obvious pro-Strange efforts from D.C., especially on the airwaves, “emboldened” Moore voters, and advised that in the future, outside groups spending money on advertising should do so through vehicles not clearly tied to Washington. “If some group, ‘Nebraskans for Freedom’ or something is doing negative advertising, it’s a lot more difficult to make the correlation.”
National Republicans don’t dispute the sharply anti-Washington mood on the ground. But they strongly reject blame for Strange’s defeat.
“Our efforts in the state helped close a 20-point deficit to single digits at a time when the campaign couldn’t afford to stay on the air,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund that spent millions on Strange’s behalf. “As our post-election analysis found, primary voters were definitely in an anti-Washington mood, but they were just as motivated by the [Gov. Robert] Bentley appointment and Moore’s cultivated image as an outsider.”
Partisan media is setting the tribal narrative
When sexual allegations against Moore landed, condemnation from Washington was swift and the NRSC soon severed its joint fundraising agreement with the campaign.
But Alabamians inclined to trust Moore found that they weren’t alone: plenty of people from conservative talk radio, television and hard-right outlets like Breitbart openly shared their skepticism of the allegations levied at the Republican, despite mounting public accusations that many lawmakers say they perceive as credible.
“You have these media outlets that give cover to bad people like Moore, who are defining the party in a way that’s going to be very, very harmful long-term,” said Katie Packer Beeson, Mitt Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager.
With the conservative base in Alabama behind Moore even as the accusations piled up, the governor — and ultimately, Trump — were resistant to forcing a new date for the special election and to the other last-ditch ideas that McConnell and top Republicans embraced to sideline Moore.
Now, Trump is painting the race as a binary choice between a liberal Democrat—though Jones, a former federal prosecutor, isn’t known as an ardent progressive—and, implicitly, a Republican closer to Trump’s agenda. That view is being amplified by corners of the conservative media ecosystem.
“Unless the party does something to try to rein in that machine,” Beeson said, “they’re not going to have any control over their message and their identity.”
Opposition research needs a revamp
Had the allegations of Moore’s sexual misconduct come out earlier, Republicans expect that the primary could have gone differently, avoiding what many see as a bad dynamic today.
“This is a unique situation, and I don’t know if something like this would have come up in standard opposition research, but a thorough vetting of every candidate is necessary,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP consultant and former top staffer at the NRSC. “Too often, politically toxic issues are coming up, and that’s costing Republicans elections.”
Opposition research experts have stressed that most firms and campaigns simply don’t have the resources to discover the kinds of issues that often only crop up through reporting, like what the Washington Post did to uncover the Moore allegations.
But some strategists around town expect that to change.
“Everyone’s reevaluating the way we look at races, the way we look at opposition research,” said a GOP operative involved in Senate races, adding, “Vulnerability studies are more important, having folks on the ground talking to people…we have to start thinking the way reporters do.”
Campaigns still matter
In recent days, Democrats have been cautiously optimistic about Jones. In their view, a candidacy that needed to catch every break imaginable has so far done so, between the rush of allegations against Moore and, more recently, Trump’s decision not to campaign in the state.
But in the home stretch of this race, they’re most confident about Jones’ campaign itself. Democrats consider his political operation superior to Moore’s from top to bottom.
Not only is he significantly outspending Moore — especially with the recent help of a super PAC in the state running TV ads on his behalf — Jones also has the resources to target and turn out base voters. That’s an important development for a party that’s shown in previous elections this year that its core supporters are eager to turn out.
“Jones has the ability to pour gasoline on the organic Democratic energy that already exists,” said Zac McCrary, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster. “That is a key piece of it.”
Other Democrats say they’re puzzled by Moore’s TV ad strategy, which they consider haphazard.
“It's not just that their ads are bad,” said one Democratic strategist watching the race. “They're running at such low levels and changing so frequently that voters may forget them entirely."
Doster, the Moore campaign adviser and paid media consultant, said that the campaign is planning a big push for the final stretch of the campaign.
“Our strategy has been to be very conscious of the fact that we’re going into a special election in the middle of December,” he said. “We made a strategic decision to hold resources back to the last two weeks.”
Democrats did find more reason for skepticism about Jones' chances Wednesday, when a poll from JMC Analytics found that Moore had retaken the lead, 49 percent to 44 percent. A previous survey from JMC Analytics, released in the immediate wake of the allegations, showed Jones with a four-point lead. But that gives many Republicans little comfort.
“We’ve already lost, no matter what happens here,” Jennings said.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.