WASHINGTON — When some 30,000 supporters packed a football stadium in Mobile, Ala., just weeks after Donald Trump kicked off his campaign in 2015, it showed he had tapped into something big. Trump’s improbable campaign had touched a national nerve.
But Alabama sent President Trump the opposite message Tuesday night by electing Democrat Doug Jones in a special Senate election: Your agenda is at risk, your political instincts are amiss, and the backlash against you is both strong and growing.
Alabama showed Trump the path to victory early in his campaign. A year into his presidency, Alabama warned of looming failures.
This was a watershed off-year election that could reshape the Republican governing agenda, trigger Republican governors and senators to further distance themselves from Trump, and foreshadow a possible Democratic wave next year that could cost Republicans control of Congress.
One of the most conservative states in the country — one that Trump carried by 28 points a year ago — elected a Democrat for the first time in a quarter century. The losing candidate, Republican Roy Moore, served as a proxy, a mini-Trump, a model of Steve Bannon’s insurgent tactics, unabashedly railing against the Republican establishment. He employed messages of racial demagoguery and was slapped with allegations of sexual misconduct.
Moore’s loss in a state as conservative as Alabama proves the limits of Trump’s style of politics. His brash and bullying tactics have not worn well.
It also reveals the dangers for the White House of the current #MeToo movement, which has led to numerous disclosures of sexual misconduct by men in power. The tactics of denial, shaming victims, and blaming the media may slow, but they may not stop, a political reckoning over Trump’s own alleged sexual misconduct.
Many leading Republican senators distanced themselves from Moore during the campaign, and, paradoxically, the prevailing sentiment on Capitol Hill Wednesday was one of grudging relief as they gave up a seat to the Democrats. GOP Senate leaders averted the crisis of having an accused sexual predator join their caucus. Before the votes were cast, majority leader Mitch McConnell had threatened to launch an ethics investigation into Moore’s behavior if he were elected.
“I give the Alabama voters a lot of credit for rejecting Roy Moore’s candidacy,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said Wednesday.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who gave money to the Jones campaign, said Tuesday it was a “good night.” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, said Moore’s loss was “a great night for America.”
The flashing warning lights remain for the GOP, however.
Exit polls in Alabama Tuesday night showed young voters picking the Democrat by large numbers and black voters — who were motivated by President Obama in 2008 and 2012 but were unmoved by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — coming out in droves.
The loss also widened the rift in the Republican Party. Trump’s former top adviser, Bannon, and the president himself, after backing a primary opponent, were whole-heartedly supporting Moore. That was despite allegations the candidate had pursued girls as young as 14 when he was in his early 30s.
“It should [send a message to Trump]. But I don’t think he accepts messages,” said Judd Gregg, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire who didn’t run for reelection in 2010.
Gregg, like other Republicans, said the lesson from the Moore loss should be a turn toward a less divisive style of politics that he and others think is embodied by Bannon.
“This sort of juvenile, arbitrary approach to governing is counterproductive to his agenda,” he said. “And he needs to recognize that there’s some people in that party undermining his ability to succeed by being the shouters from the corners.
“They don’t get anything done, and in the process they are empowering folks attracted to a liberal agenda,” he added. “They’ve managed a lose-lose.”
“After Alabama disaster GOP must do right thing and DUMP Steve Bannon,” Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York, wrote on Twitter. “If we are to Make America Great Again for all Americans, Bannon must go!”
Trump may have harbored some sympathy for Moore, alluding earlier in the special Senate election to the way he also felt falsely accused and unfairly maligned by female accusers. On Wednesday Trump avoided any in-depth reflection on the race.
“Wish we would have gotten the seat. A lot of Republicans feel differently; they’re very happy with the way it turned out,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. “But I would have — as the leader of the party — I would have liked to have had the seat.”
Some Republicans, even though Alabama came on the heels of a GOP loss in the Virginia governor’s contest, tried to discourage anyone from drawing broad conclusions from Alabama.
“The situation in Alabama was a complete aberration — a one-off,” Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, said in an interview. “Those were unbelievably unusual circumstances, and I don’t expect that to be repeated.”
But Democrats have newfound confidence, with talk that they could even win Senate races in Tennessee, Arizona, and Nevada next fall.
In the Capitol, the Republicans’ sweeping tax bill will not likely be affected by the result in Alabama. A vote on the legislation is planned next week before Alabama results are certified, about two weeksbefore Jones is scheduled to be sworn into office.
But other aspects of the Republican agenda could become harder to pass, with a narrow 51-49 advantage in the chamber. Previously, three Republicans peeling off could derail any vote. Going forward, that margin will be just two.
That new dynamic could empower more moderate Republican senators such as Collins; John McCain of Arizona; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It could also strengthen the hands of others who have been willing to buck Trump, such as Corker and Flake.
“Any Republican senator now has a unique level of leverage,” Gregg said. “If two people together have a view, they’re basically going to control outcomes. It makes it much harder to lead the Senate from a standpoint of having a consistent, coherent policy. . . . It’ll make it much harder to get legislation through.”
It’s an open question now whether Republicans will begin further distancing themselves from their unpredictable and erratic leader in the White House, who is embroiled in an inquiry of his campaign’s contacts with Russians.
Over the past year, his approval ratings have approached 60 percent in Alabama, making it one of the top states for Trump support. But in exit polls among voters on Tuesday, 48 percent said they approve of the job that Trump is doing.
When Jones is sworn in, he could also prove to be an unpredictable vote as he attempts to position himself for reelection in 2020.
He could peel off and vote with Republicans from time to time, or join Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in forming an alliance of moderate Democrats, something that has become a rare breed in modern Washington.
Whether or not Jones joins Republicans in some votes, Democrats celebrated.
“Roy Moore was a terrible candidate, but it would be a big mistake for Republicans to dismiss his loss only as a result of Moore’s personal past,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday morning. “The Republican brand, even in deep-red Alabama, is positively toxic.”
McConnell tried to sidestep the election overall. He failed to mention the results on his opening remarks on the Senate floor, and when asked, he only alluded to the election as an “unusual day.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.