The Alabama Republican primary had long been labeled as a critical flashpoint between the party establishment and insurgent conservative activists. Former State Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, who has led in the polls from early on, has been seen as the anti-establishment candidate. The social conservative is known for not pulling any punches in his religious and political views.
Despite him being the outsider candidate who is being massively outspent, President Donald Trump had been supporting establishment favorite Senator Luther Strange for months. It was a move that puzzled many supporters given that he once campaigned on the slogan “drain the swamp.” Trump’s arrival in Washington D.C. was meant to end the reign of the Republican establishment.
As time has drawn on, it has become increasingly clear that Strange was due to lose and lose big against Moore. President Trump was stuck in a difficult decision.
Switching support from Strange to Moore would have meant that President Trump was admitting defeat. Could he possibly do that? Alternatively, sticking with Senator Strange would mean going down with the sinking ship.
Indications show that President Trump is regretful of his decision.
Monday night, he hosted a dinner with conservative activists and admitted that Strange was going to lose. While this was not a public declaration, it shows a stark contrast to what he has told people publicly. Despite sticking to his original endorsement, he knew it was a losing battle.
Trump was right in his final prognostication as Strange did indeed lose. Though it’s unclear how much the weakening support of the President played into it, it undoubtedly didn’t help.
Now the question here will be how the President responds to the loss of the man he endorsed. Many will undoubtedly pin the loss on him, given he’s the top elected Republican in the country. This may not be how President Trump plays his cards though.
While the victory of Roy Moore hands the President his first congressional defeat, this could be spun as a failure by the Republican establishment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a number of Republican establishment-aligned interests dumped big dollars into the race to back Strange. Their massive investment indicates that they view this as a critical race.
What happens now that the critical race has been lost?
The millions of dollars burned on the race could have been better spent on repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, tax reform, or just defeating Democrats. Instead, it was spent fighting Republicans with Republican money.
Is this a productive use of funds?
The case here anti-establishment Republicans can make is that it’s game over. Establishment Republicans can’t win against their own, so how can they beat Democrats?
President Donald Trump abandoning Strange is a significant development in the final stretch of the Alabama Republican primary, and this is a big story. The bigger story may be how the President ultimately spins the loss. This primary will send shock waves throughout the Republican Party and the country, setting the stage for an epic battle between the Republican establishment and the grassroots activists trying to drain the swamp.