Washington – Weary national Republicans breathed a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday, a day after voters knocked out their own party’s scandal-plagued candidate in deep-red Alabama.
Yet all is not well in a party confronted with new rounds of infighting and a suddenly shrinking Senate majority heading into next year’s midterm elections.
A semi-humbled President Donald Trump conceded that Roy Moore’s loss was not his preferred outcome. He said he “would have liked to have had the seat” and an important Senate vote as GOP lawmakers scratch for legislative victories.
But he also acknowledged, “A lot of Republicans feel differently. They feel very happy about the way it turned out.”
Indeed, it was easy to find establishment-minded Republicans — in and out of Washington — who cheered Moore’s loss as the impact of the Alabama stunner echoed throughout the political world. The prospect of a high-profile Republican senator dogged by sexual misconduct accusations — and an all-but-certain ethics investigation — unnerved a GOP that’s fearful of an albatross on its candidates in next year’s campaigns.
Republican Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said that Moore, a fiery conservative, would have brought a “radioactive” element to the Senate GOP.
“I’m relieved and I believe a lot of Republicans are relieved that Roy Moore and some of his people aren’t the face of the Republican Party that I know,” said Shelby, who cast a write-in vote for another Republican and never backed down in his opposition to Moore.
More than 22,000 write-in votes were cast Tuesday, more than the margin of difference between the winner and loser, suggesting many other voters refused to vote for a Democrat but couldn’t accept Moore.
Sen.-elect Doug Jones’ stunning Democratic victory marked a major setback for Trump and top political ally Steve Bannon. They had devoted time, resources and political capital to Moore in recent days, even as he faced the allegations of sexual misconduct and espoused views that alienated women, racial minorities, gays and Muslims.
Despite the outcome’s relief for the GOP’s pragmatic wing, the fight for the party’s soul was hardly decided with one Alabama special election.
Allies of Bannon, who declared war on the party’s establishment after leaving the White House earlier in the year, dismissed the loss as little more than a temporary setback that would soon be forgotten.
Republicans cheering Moore’s loss, they said, would simply enrage Trump’s most loyal supporters nationwide, who already suspected some Republican leaders were trying to undermine the president’s agenda.
At the same time, the Alabama contest sounded an undeniable alarm for Republican officials charged with defending the party’s majorities in the House and Senate next year. Under the weight of Trump’s historically low approval ratings, Alabama put their concerns on steroids.
“This was a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment,” said Steven Law, who leads the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate GOP leaders. He said Alabama’s election, like recent contests in Virginia and New Jersey, demonstrated “sky-high Democratic enthusiasm.”
In the shorter term, it’s unclear how the loss will affect the Republicans’ governing agenda.
When Jones is sworn into office — likely in early January — the GOP’s Senate majority will shrink to pinhole-sized 51-49. That increases pressure on Republicans to push their prized $1.5 trillion tax bill through Congress before lawmakers leave town late this month, a goal they seem likely to achieve.
The narrowing majority gives extra leverage to Republicans like moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who’s extracted leadership promises for accompanying legislation shoring up parts of the “Obamacare” health care law.
Collins told reporters Wednesday she was confident those promises would be kept.
“All you cynics in the press will have to be eating crow come Dec. 31,” she said.
Yet Republicans cannot abandon their policy priorities after taxes if they hope to generate momentum heading into the midterms, said Tim Phillips, president of the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.
“Taxes are a crucial start, but they’re going to need to do more,” he said. Jones’ victory could complicate the GOP’s goals, Phillips said, particularly “if he goes the partisan resistance route.”
“If he does, then clearly it’s one less vote and it will make things more difficult,” he added.
The GOP already faced an uphill battle for any major legislative achievements in the near term.
Some Republicans, particularly House leaders, have talked about a drive to overhaul Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs next year.
Even if the GOP succeeds in approving special rules that would require just 50 votes, some are leery of cutting popular programs in an election year.
Democrats would oppose any such effort.
Other initiatives, like a huge program to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, would need 60 Senate votes to succeed. Barring a GOP effort to craft bipartisan bills, it seems unlikely nine Democrats would defect to back such measures with elections on the horizon.
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