Sen. Strange in Big Trouble

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 40 – This week:

  • Last gasp on health care
  • Republicans looking weak in generic ballot polling
  • Moore likely to win Tuesday’s Alabama Senate primary


Health care: Senate Republicans will make their last effort this week to pass a health care reform bill. It’s do or die time, but with everyone from John McCain to Ted Cruz getting cold feet on late versions of the bill known as Graham-Cassidy.

The legislative roadmap looks something like this: Republicans need to pass a health care bill (if they’re going to get one at all) by September 30 — the last day of the fiscal year — in order to comply with Senate rules for reconciliation. They can then move on to tax reform, using a reconciliation bill for next year’s budget as the vehicle.

The details of whatever bill passes (or doesn’t pass) are sure to change quite a bit in the coming days and hours. The key at this late point is simply the binary question of political achievement. Either Trump and the Republicans ram through a health care reform bill, or they don’t. The former means momentum and hope going forward on other priorities like tax reform. The latter means miserable failure, ridicule, and probably a sound drubbing from voters in the 2018 midterms. And that applies even if the bill accomplishes few of the original aims of Obamacare repeal, instead merely establishing more state-level control over the program.

Already, the generic ballot polls show the GOP with a substantial (although not overwhelming) disadvantage. The last several non-partisan polls show a Democratic advantage ranging from 6 to 9 points. With such a structural disadvantage already present simply because it’s the first Trump midterm, it will be very hard to convince voters to come out and support a Republican majority that cannot legislate and is perceived as incompetent.

A lot, therefore, is riding on this week’s attempt at a health care bill. President Trump will be judged for his ability to cut a deal. Senate Republicans, if they fail again, could face trouble from all sides, including primary challenges backed by Trump.

Senate 2017

Alabama: Special elections are usually pretty hard to read. Especially in primaries, polling can be notoriously unreliable. The tides can shift easily from one ideologically similar candidate to another in a matter of just a day or two. Think back to the presidential primaries — either the ones Trump won or the ones he lost — and you can find some pretty dramatic examples of this.

But if you really want to know where a race like this week’s Alabama special Senate election is, you just need to look at what the candidates are doing and saying as election day rapidly approaches.

The two candidates’ closing messages could hardly be more different. Sen. Luther Strange is denouncing Judge Roy Moore for going soft on a child rapist when he was on the bench. Moore, meanwhile, is shrugging off the charges — not forcefully rebutting them, but rather exuding confidence that they just won’t matter. It doesn’t hurt that Moore just picked up the endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks, R, who finished third in the first round of voting.

A candidate who knows he is losing tends to go sharply negative. That’s the telltale indicator, and it pretty much explains where this race is right now. Strange has gone about as negative as anyone can go, and Moore’s lead is probably somewhere around 10 points. Strange has gone to the scorched-earth negative message as his closer, which is rarely a sign of confidence.

The best thing Strange has going for him is President Trump’s endorsement. But even that is somewhat tepid, all things considered. In his recent campaign speech on Strange’s behalf, Trump was unequivocal in his support of Strange, but he also praised Moore and offered the weakest possible reason for backing Strange — his electability in the coming general election.

“Luther will definitely win,” Trump said of the general election. “Roy has a very good chance of not winning.” And this is, of course, true, although it is hard to imagine a Democrat carrying Alabama. Trump also pointed out that if Moore wins, people will pile on him and talk about how the sitting president’s preferred candidate lost.

None of this represents a very strong endorsement of Strange. However, this is a very clever message for Trump to project near the end of the race. As matters stand, Strange is an ethically compromised candidate. He is the underdog, and practically no one will actually blame Trump if Moore (arguably a more Trump-ish candidate) defeats him. Whereas if Strange actually does win, Trump will look like a miracle-worker.

It’s really a win-win for Trump. Because if Strange loses, Trump will be viewed as having anticipated and prepared for the inevitable. Not only will he have played ball to help congressional Republicans, but he will have also committed himself to backing Moore wholeheartedly in the general election, placing himself on the winning side no matter what.

Strange’s likely defeat will be an awkward moment for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.