The Republican Civil War — Alabama Edition

The next seven days is one of those weeks that happen from time to time when there are a lot of events competing for the attention of political wonks — the German elections, the “long conference” at the Supreme Court, perhaps a vote on the latest Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, perhaps even more news on the Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and the Trump campaign’s connections to those illegal acts.  The most significant event, however, might be the Republican runoff in the Alabama Senate special election.

Over the years, a recurring topic on this blog has been the internal divisions in the Republican party (and to a lesser degree the divisions in the Democratic party).  The run-off in Alabama pits a conservative “Establishment” candidate (interim Senator Luther Strange) against the Tea Party/Trumpist candidate (State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore).    It is not possible to describe all of the wacky things that Justice Moore has done over the year that violated his oath of office (some of which got him removed from office the first time).  A Senator Moore would actually make Ted Cruz and Rand Paul look normal.

While Trump — perhaps seeing a need to at least pretend to work with the Republicans in D.C. — is supporting Senator Strange, but Breitbart and other parts of the Trump machine are supporting Justice Moore.  Current polls are showing Justice Moore with a comfortable (but not necessarily safe given how difficult it is to predict turnout) lead.

If Senator Strange wins, it is a minor setback for the ultranationalists/reality-challenged elements of the Republican party led by Steve Bannon and the Mercer family.  They have already announced that they are looking to primary Republican incumbents in next year’s primary and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

A win by Justice Moore will make things interesting.  The Democrats have a credible candidate for the general election in December — former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.  While Senator Strange would probably win the general election by a comfortable margin, Jones might have a fighting chance against Justice Moore.  The result of that general election would be a signal for the rest of the country.

A win by Justice Moore in the general election would show that Republicans can nominate wacky candidates (like Roy Moore, Kid Rock, Donald Trump) and win.  It would open the flood gates to primary every Republican Senator.  A win by Doug Jones would show that, even in safe Republican states, there are limits to how far to the right the Republican Party can go before it starts losing to many independents and moderate Republicans to carry an election.

A Justice Moore win would also influence Democratic politics.  In many states and districts (especially those that lean Republicans), Democrats have nominated moderate candidates in the hopes of pulling out narrow wins.  If it is impossible to win in places like Texas and Alabama with candidates who appeal to the center, there is no reason to nominate a candidate who disagrees with the base on some issues as it will not alter the results.  There are several incumbent Democrats in red states/districts who could easily find themselves facing a primary if the Alabama election undermines the traditional view that elections are won in the center.

A further move away from the center by both parties would undoubtedly increase the problems in Congress.  We have pretty much reached the day when the most conservative Democrats in Congress is significantly to the left of the most liberal Republican.  Soon we will reach the day in which there will only be a handful (or no) Democrats holding lean Republican seats and a handful (or no) Republicans holding lean Democratic seats.  As we have already seen, when politicians are more concerned about primary elections than with general elections, compromise and working across party lines becomes risky and harder to do.

In short, Tuesday’s results could start a chain reaction that would shape the 2018 elections for the U.S. Senate.   If several Republican incumbents lose in the primary to far-right candidates, the pool of opportunity for Democrats in the general election could become large enough for Democrats to get to fifty-one Senators.  That result is still unlikely as the Republicans only have eight seats to defend, but — if the Democrats start at 49 rather than 48 and have shots in Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah as well as Arizona and Nevada — a majority would become possible.

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