BRIEFING: Moore’s win shakes Republican D.C.

THE BRIEFING, Vol. V, Issue 41 – This week:

  • Moore’s win shakes Republican Washington
  • Dems unlikely to exploit
  • Rick Scott moved from most-hated to rising star


Price resignation: President Trump was right to be angry about HHS Secretary Tom Price’s expensive chartered airplane travel, which cost taxpayers nearly half a million dollars. And it wasn’t that much of a surprise on Friday to see Price resign as a result.

This is a setback for Trump in that he has a fairly full agenda at Health and Human Services and doesn’t need to face another confirmation battle at the moment. But Price would have been much more a pain had he stayed in office any longer. Price had lost Trump’s confidence for reasons that none of his conservative supporters can really dispute. Given his own criticism of bureaucratic travel in the Obama administration, he just should have known better.

This has to be a lesson — surely not the last — that Republicans can expect to be judged harshly for their performance in government simply because they judged others harshly as well. Perhaps Obama-era officials deserved what they got for their missteps in office, but if you’re going to attack them for it, you really need to keep your own nose clean when your party take power and you ascend to the leadership of the federal agencies. So far, not all of Trump’s appointments are passing this simple hypocrisy test.

The sad outcome here for conservatives is that even though Trump can surely find an adequate replacement for Price, he won’t be able to find a more conservative one. As a result, the chances of at least fixing some of Obamacare’s regulatory problems just got worse. And even more frustratingly, it means that the uber-expensive Republican defense of Price’s old House seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs (between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff) over the summer was essentially much ado about nothing.

Alabama primary: Judge Roy Moore soundly defeated Sen. Luther Strange in last Tuesday’s special U.S. Senate primary. The result was fully expected, as we’d noted over and over again. But its actualization has Republican Washington in a bit of a panic. Why is that? Simple. Even as the evidence continues to mount of Democratic voter enthusiasm, it is also evident that not even President Trump’s endorsement can save a Washington insider from an insurgent challenge.

In short, Republicans are going to face a lot of pressure from both sides in 2018. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for all the resources he has at hand to beat back anti-establishment challengers to his incumbents, is not at all invincible.

To be sure, Trump’s endorsement of Strange was not as full-throated as it could have been. Not even close. His argument that Strange was the more electable candidate was conspicuously weak. And that isn’t the only sign that his heart just wasn’t in it.

The more important problem that Strange faced in this election was a local one. The issue behind his unpopularity was tied to his appointment by former Gov. Robert Bentley. The appointment inevitably created an appearance of impropriety, given Strange’s easier investigation of Bentley on the very sex scandal that eventually caused him to resign in disgrace. It appeared to some that he had backed off in exchange for an appointment to the U.S. Senate. Thus, another man’s sex scandal cost Strange his political career.

Although Trump was probably right about Moore being a less electable option, Alabama Democrats don’t seem to be moving in such a way as to take maximum advantage of his victory in the primary.

Their own nominee, Doug Jones, has come out with a strong backing of legal abortion for any reason right up until and through the moment of birth. This position may be completely typical of national Democrats, but it’s also  just so extreme that just isn’t going to win him any support in the Yellowhammer State.

One might have expected, given the unexpected outcome in 2016, a bit of introspection about running in the heartland as the candidate of abortion on demand without apology, but that’s where the party is at the moment. And although this position is fine with the Democratic base, which wants to see another knockdown-drag-out fight for a political victory against Trump, party establishment Democrats have rightly recognized that this race just might not be worth a substantial financial investment, even though Moore’s last statewide election victory was a very close one — just a three-point win. As matters stand, he is likely to do much better than that in the December special general election.

Senate 2018

Arizona: Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D, has officially entered the race for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jeff Flake. Her entry is hardly a surprise, given the unique opportunity Democrats have to pick up a seat in Arizona, where Flake is unpopular and Republicans sharply divided over his tenure.

Flake’s biggest problem at the moment is winning his primary despite a clear public vote of no-confidence by President Trump. Although Arizona is not one of the president’s better states — he far underperformed Mitt Romney there, for example — a Republican incumbent just never wants to have a Republican president working against him in a primary.

Still, this will be one of the last races to unfold in 2018, as the primary will not be held until August 28 of next year. Although Flake appears to be the weakest of all Republican Senate incumbents at the moment, a lot can happen in 11 months.

Florida: As recently as fall 2013, Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s numbers were in the toilet. Not only did he overcome a double-digit polling deficit and high unfavorability to win re-election in 2014 over a once-popular former governor, but his leadership during Hurricane Irma and its aftermath might now be propelling him to frontrunner status in next year’s Senate election.

Scott has been quite open about his intention to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has been mostly inoffensive in office since first winning his seat in the crazy 2000 Florida election. For the first time, a poll shows Scott with a modest lead over the incumbent. With nine in ten Floridians approving of his handling of the storm, the very wealthy Scott finds himself in a strong position to power his own way to the U.S. Senate by spending millions once again on his own campaign. And if Republicans can put this seat into serious contention, it essentially means Democrats have no path to taking over the Senate in 2018.

Tennessee: Conservative Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn is now signaling she might be running for the U.S. Senate in the seat vacated by Bob Corker. She would be just one in a potential crowd of prominent GOP contenders.

Tennessee was a latecomer to realignment, and a modern-day success story for the GOP. In the time since Corker’s first election victory in 2006, Tennessee’s Democratic Party has gone from dominance of state politics to utter delamination. Where Corker’s first win truly was in doubt, this cycle’s outcome likely won’t be.