After the GOP leadership lost health care reform in the Senate by a single vote with three renegade Republicans joining a unanimous bloc of Democrats, you’d think Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be singularly focused on capturing the 25 Senate seats Democrats will be defending in 2018. You’d think.
Instead, a McConnell-aligned PAC is running a vicious attack ad campaign in the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ open Senate seat in Alabama…in the GOP primary…against a Republican congressman. Mo Brooks — a conservative, a member of the House Freedom Caucus and one of the three leading candidates to succeed Sessions – earned McConnell’s ire by suggesting that the Kentucky senator step down as Majority Leader for failing to pass Obamacare repeal.
McConnell has placed his support, his money and his political machine behind recently appointed Senator Luther Strange in the August 15th primary. Six months ago, disgraced Alabama Governor Robert Bentley appointed Strange, then the state’s Attorney General, to Sessions’ open seat before pleading guilty to two corruption charges related to a sex scandal and resigning from office. Strange himself faces several ethics complaints related to his appointment and his days as Attorney General. The Alabama ethics commission has interestingly postponed its hearing on these complaints until the day after the primary.
From his brief Senate tenure, Strange appears to be a relatively reliable vote for Senate leadership, not having had time to distinguish himself – for better or worse. The key word for the Republican leadership is “reliable” – as in a vote they can count on — again, for better or worse.
“Reliable,” as defined by the Establishment, describes neither Brooks nor the other GOP contender, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. Chief Justice Moore has gained prominence among social conservatives and is best known for being removed from office for refusing to remove a replica of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building.
Because Alabama is as red a state as you’ll find, there not much to distinguish between the Republican candidates on major issues; the difference arises in tone, personality and who’s going to hang out with which crowd in the Senate GOP cloakroom. Strange has made his bed with the Establishment wing of the Senate. And, as McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) has demonstrated, they are bent and determined to keep Strange there.
Already, the SLF has announced that it expects to spend at least eight million dollars on behalf of Strange – an unheard of investment in a Republican state in a non-election year. McConnell’s PAC has run ads attacking both Brooks and Moore, but has focused most of its attention (and money) on Brooks. The attack ads claim that Brooks was insufficiently supportive of President Trump when Brooks served as chairman for Ted Cruz’s presidential race in the primary. And Trump gave an inexplicable, last-minute Twitter endorsement of Strange, a particularly strange move given the friction between Trump and McConnell.
Given Trump’s popularity in Alabama, the attacks have done some damage to Brooks’ standing in the polls. He’s currently running third behind both Moore and Strange, although a recent poll had the race close with Moore leading with 30%, Strange at 22%, and Brooks at 19%. If no one receives more than 50% of the vote in next week’s primary, the top two vote getters in each party will face off in runoffs on September 26 (the general election is scheduled for December 12).
Therefore, Brooks does not need to beat both Moore and Strange; he only needs to place first or second to make it to the runoff. Since voter turnout in primaries tends to be low and difficult to poll, predicting the outcome of this race is treacherous business. McConnell’s money could set up a Moore-Strange runoff, as planned, or the Majority Leader and his Establishment allies could find themselves once again with egg on their faces.
It begs the question: why is Senator McConnell plugging into a safe Republican seat millions of dollars that could be used to defeat up to a dozen potentially vulnerable Democrats in 2018? Is he truly more comfortable with the reelection of Democrat senators who vote as a bloc against the Trump/GOP agenda – than a Senator Brooks (R-AL) who will fight for it?
The answer lies in the ongoing battle between McConnell and Establishment strongholds, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Tea Party organizations, like the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF). A National Review article in 2013 depicted in detail how the McConnell-SCF feud overwhelmed the 2014 Nebraska Senate election that resulted in the election of Ben Sasse.
As Sasse’s election illustrates, the Establishment does not have a great track record of picking senators. If McConnell and the Establishment had had their way, Sasse, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul today would not be on the Senate floor. In contrast, senators, like Lamar Alexander, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski, who were supported by the Establishment when challenged from the right, abandoned their principles and the entire GOP by switching and voting against outright repeal of Obamacare a month ago.
So, how exactly does McConnell truly define who is “reliable” and who is not? Who does he think is on his side? And whose side is he on?
The wily, crafty legislator may have tipped his hand when he complained this week about President Trump’s “excessive expectations” about the progress in the Senate of the Trump agenda. McConnell, who has been in the Senate for 33 years, is at heart a Senate institutionalist – and the traditions of that body, like the filibuster (which Strange supports and Brooks and Trump oppose).
And his definition of “reliable” does not depend on whether you are principled, a conservative, or a supporter of the President – the key is whether you vote with Mitch McConnell and preserving the Senate he loves.
Apparently, Senator McConnell thinks that’s the key qualification for Alabama’s next senator. We’ll see on Tuesday if Alabama Republicans agree.