Roy Moore spent months battering Senate Republicans en route to a primary victory in Alabama. On Wednesday, those senators began to reckon with the brash ex-judge joining their ranks.
Assuming he clears the December general election, Moore promises to be an unpredictable force in the fragile GOP majority as Republicans try to advance their agenda, including an ambitious tax overhaul that began in earnest on Wednesday.
And his win Tuesday night against Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred pick — is stoking increased concerns within the GOP about primaries in the 2018 cycle. The most serious new worry right now: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who is likely to get a vigorous primary challenge from former state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
With those twin headaches, senior Republicans are sending a blunt signal to the rest of the party that it has to get its act together.
“At some point, I think, for the team to succeed, we gotta start acting like a team and that means we gotta start producing legislative results or we’re gonna end up in the minority two years from now,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican. “I hope that when Roy Moore gets here, he can be part of a team that wants to get some things across the finish line.”
Several influential GOP senators argued Wednesday that Strange’s loss in the Alabama primary is a clear sign of frustration from Republican voters, especially with the party’s repeated failures to repeal Obamacare.
“There’s a mood out there that the Republican Party is not doing its job,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who scrambled for the past several weeks to pick up votes for his Obamacare repeal measure but ultimately fell short. “And it’s not much of a stretch.”
There will be some big fences to mend within the conference if Moore does become the next senator from Alabama. A super PAC closely allied with McConnell spent millions pounding Moore in the primary, and few GOP senators kept their powder dry, with nearly all enthusiastically supporting Strange — their colleague of just seven months.
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said he didn’t believe Moore would be a productive senator, pointing to the judge’s stormy tenure on the Alabama Supreme Court, where he was twice ousted for defying federal edicts.
But on Wednesday, Cornyn took a starkly different tone with the party’s controversial nominee. The No. 2 Senate Republican remarked with a chuckle that “it’s going to be interesting to see what the dynamic is” in the conference after such a brutal and contentious primary.
“I’m going to try my best to support him and also work with him,” Cornyn said in an interview. “Hopefully, he’ll be a constructive member of the conference.”
The topic of Moore never came up at a regular party lunch on Wednesday, attendees said. One person said the party is concerned but began to see the writing on the wall last week and had already accepted that Strange — whose prospects were also clouded by the role he played in investigating the state’s disgraced former governor, Robert Bentley — would lose.
National Republicans quickly said following Moore’s win that they would be fully behind the judge, even with his history of inflammatory statements.
“We want to keep the majority so we’d embrace just about anyone,” quipped one GOP senator.
McConnell also spoke to Moore by phone on Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the majority leader.
Still, Senate Republicans are now nervously watching whether the anti-establishment fervor will bleed into other GOP races after the Alabama primary — particularly next door in Mississippi. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who waded into the Alabama race on behalf of Moore, is backing McDaniel, who nearly beat Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014.
Wicker helped lead the party’s campaign arm in 2016, which crushed conservative challengers to GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
In an interview, Wicker noted he is no longer the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman and said he is taking his own race seriously. His campaign Twitter account recently has been resoundingly defending President Donald Trump and his “plan to crush radical Islamic terrorism.”
“I’m worried about a number of people being involved in primaries,” McCain said. “Every candidate must consider themselves vulnerable. … Anybody who doesn’t run scared is foolish.”
Added another Republican senator: “I wouldn’t say shook, but people are concerned.”
Moore, should he defeat Democrat Doug Jones in the Dec. 12 general election, will likely present more immediate challenges for Republicans than at the polls during next year’s campaign cycle.
McConnell is working with a narrow majority these days, since the GOP holds just 52 seats in the chamber. It took only three Senate Republicans to repeatedly tank the party’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare.
Even medical absences can be a roadblock for the party’s agenda. Cochran has missed votes this week as he recovers at home from urological issues. Earlier this year, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who was recovering from back surgery, had to be flown in to vote on overturning an Obama-era regulation related to funding for Planned Parenthood.
McCain himself flew back to Washington just days after having treatment for brain cancer to help advance an Obamacare repeal measure.
Vice President Mike Pence has already been summoned to the Senate a handful of times to break a tie — something his predecessor, Joe Biden, never had to do in eight years in office.
This barely functioning majority leaves some GOP senators wondering just how reliable Moore will be in the Senate, and whether the uncompromising jurist will translate into a serious legislator. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Moore mentioned that he had spoken with Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, a trio of Republicans known for being headaches for leadership.
“I don’t know how he’ll be when he gets here,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said. “But the record, you know. The statements made and positions taken, that’s maybe tough.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who announced this week that he would not run for re-election next year, said “voters are very frustrated, no question.”
“But then there’s something else out there, too,” Corker added. “It’s more than [gridlock]. It’s also a frustration about where many people are in their own lives. It’s not just frustration at Washington. And there should be frustration at Washington.”
Still other Republican senators who backed Strange said they were confident Moore would fit into the conference and into his new role as a senator, should he win.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) pointed to Moore’s victory speech — in which Moore noted that even though Trump endorsed his opponent, he would work with him — as proof that the former judge will become a team player for the GOP.
“I’ve never heard that side of him before,” Inhofe said. “I think he’s gone out of his way to be helpful, cooperative and get things done.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah.) was similarly hopeful: “I have a feeling that Moore will — once he gets here — realize how important this place is, how good it is, and he’ll fit in.”
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