The Strange Senate race of 2017

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 44 – This week:

  • Republicans threatening in Virginia?
  • Democrats threatening in Alabama?
  • Wait, is this opposite day?

Governor 2017

Virginia: Democrats are starting to freak out a bit about this race. They should still win it, but they have some good reasons for feeling as uneasy as they do.

Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor, is within low single digits or 

Ed Gillespie

even leading the Democrats’ relatively bland, establishment-type nominee, Ralph Northam, according to two recent polls. (For context, two other polls suggest a much less competitive race.) The cash-strapped DNC was able to commit only about half of what the RNC has thrown into this race on Gillespie’s behalf. And the Democratic officials continue to talk as if they can win by simply linking Gillespie to Trump.

Northam is still favored to win. But again, this sure feels a lot like 2014. In that year’s U.S. Senate race, Gillespie dramatically overperformed expectations after he came roaring into contention in the last two weeks or so against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.

Senate 2017

Alabama: Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore is polling quite poorly ahead of December’s Senate contest, giving rise to fears that the Republicans will drop an easy Senate seat before the Midterms have even begun. One poll shows the race between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones is a tie. Others have a race in single-digits, which would be quite a good showing for any Democrat in the Yellowhammer State. And given Moore’s history of squeaking through in barn-burning victories, his victory this time cannot be guaranteed. As President Trump pointed out before the primary, Moore is a relatively weak candidate who could well lose the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The news coverage has, naturally, focused on the means by which Moore became the nominee. Whether because he actually loses the seat (less likely) or just forces Republicans to spend an inordinate sum in a state where they shouldn’t have to (more likely), it’s already something of a mishap.

And it reflects a change in the civil war that has now defined the Republican Party for several election cycles. It was once a contest between the GOP leadership and an ideologically conservative insurgency. That has changed — now the leadership’s main enemy is an ideologically muddy Trumpist faction that former Trump advisor Steve Bannon hopes to rally against the party leaders.

Moore may yet win — after all, he’s running in Alabama. But for now, here’s a thought: How did Moore become the nominee? Whose “fault” could we say it is that this seat is now even on the playing board?

Sure, lots of people will credit or blame Bannon, or the conservatives with an anti-establishment streak who have violently stoked discontent within the party since at least 2013. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly seems to hold this view, criticizing the former Trump advisor for “nominating people who lose.”

But doesn’t this miss the point? After all, Moore’s nomination has at least as much to do with his opposition as it does with his own appeal to the voters.

Look back at the three-way primary for the GOP nomination in this race — between

Luther Strange with President Trump

 the incumbent senator, Luther Strange, Moore, and conservative insurgent Rep. Mo Brooks. Strange had already been, for months, an extremely controversial candidate, because of how he had been appointed to the seat and by whom. When he took the appointment from a corrupt governor whom he had spent years investigating, there was an instant outcry — in fact, the appointment helped re-ignite the push to oust Republican Gov. Robert Bentley from office. And it cast doubts upon Strange’s integrity, fair or not.

The voters of the state had not chosen Strange as their senator. And yet Senate Republican leaders decided that the controversy would not matter to them — they were going to treat Strange like any other incumbent and make sure he reached the runoff. They went so far as to promise reprisals against anyone who worked with Brooks.

The result, of course, was that Moore entered the runoff (as it was always clear he would) against the weaker Republican opponent. In the runoff, it was only natural for Brooks’ supporters to go to Moore rather than Strange. But if the primary had come out the other way, with Brooks finishing second, first-round Strange voters might well have gone for Brooks, at least giving him a chance, in order to spare the party Moore’s elevation.

In the end, Alabama may just do what it has done for so long — elect the Republican. But to blame anti-establishment Republicans for this new rough patch is simplistic, and overlooks the role that Senate GOP leaders played in putting one of their own Senate seats at risk.

Senate 2018

California: Here’s something Democrats surely weren’t expecting: A primary challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, from her left. State Senate President Kevin DeLeon’s perhaps quixotic challenge against the former San Francisco mayor is arguably symbolic of what’s happening in today’s Democratic Party. It’s already a very liberal party, compared even to just a decade ago. But now the most politically active segment of its base wants to draw it much further to the Left, as demonstrated by their apparent belief that Feinstein is too conservative.

Before DeLeon’s decision, some had actually been calling on former Sen. Barbara Boxer to come back and challenge her former colleague.

Feinstein is definitely taking nothing for granted, and has already begun the process of trotting out endorsements from local officials.

North Dakota:

House 2018

Ohio-12: Just as Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., withdrew (for a second time) as Trump’s Drug Czar nominee, obviating the need for a special election in his district, Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, announced he will resign from his relatively safe Republican seat effective January.

This will trigger yet another unwanted but certainly winnable special House election for Republicans in the northern and eastern exurbs of Columbus. The seat went for President Trump by 11 points in 2016. The race, which won’t take shape for some time, will offer yet another opportunity to take the electorate’s temperature, this time in calendar 2018. Even if Democrats can’t win, can they keep up their turnout advantage long enough to get some mileage out of it in the midterms?