Three words are striking fear in Senate Republicans these days: “Senator Roy Moore.”
The bomb-throwing former Alabama Supreme Court justice has vaulted to a hefty lead in Alabama’s Senate special election, lambasting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell every step of the way. A Moore victory promises to make McConnell’s tenuous 52-seat majority even more precarious, allies of the majority leader warn, potentially imperiling tax reform, raising the risk of default on the nation’s debt or even derailing routine Senate business.
Moore faces interim Sen. Luther Strange — whom a McConnell-aligned outside group has spent millions to elect — in a Sept. 26 Republican runoff.
Strange is a team player, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republican senators, while Moore is viewed as unpredictable — a clash-in-waiting with McConnell’s low-key leadership style.
“I do not,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), when asked whether he thought Moore would be a productive member of the Republican caucus. “Look at his track record.”
Added a Republican senator who requested anonymity: “It’s highly likely that he could be disruptive. We’re talking about somebody who has been removed from the bench twice.”
Moore promises to make McConnell’s life miserable if he makes it to the Senate. Already the majority leader is subject to the whims of members at the ideological poles of the conference, senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz on the right and Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski on the left. Moore might make those senators seem like loyal foot soldiers.
In one fundraising email typical of the strikes he’s been launching at McConnell and Strange throughout the campaign, Moore accused the majority leader of “dirty tricks and schemes … like turning out Democrats to vote for his crony Luther Strange in our Republican Primary.”
“Judge Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate means the END of Mitch McConnell’s reign as Majority Leader,” Moore added.
Moore was not made available for an interview for this story. But in an interview earlier this year, he made clear he would serve in the Senate in the same manner he did on the state Supreme Court, from which he was removed twice. The first time he refused to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building; more recently, he ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of gay marriage.
“They feel like maybe I would take the same kind of attitude at the United States Senate,” Moore said of Senate Republicans. “And maybe I would. Because I stand for what I believe in.”
Moore could cause GOP leaders grief by aligning himself with a conservative bloc of senators, or go rogue by placing holds on legislation and nominees, employing the enormous powers that individual senators possess. Strange, by contrast, has not embraced renegade floor tactics Paul, Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have used in the past.
“If Roy Moore wins, are you assuming he doesn’t vote with us on some things?” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wryly quipped.
Other Republicans worry that a Moore victory would embolden other conservative challenges to other incumbents. But the concern is perhaps most pronounced about what it would mean for day-to-day Senate business. McConnell already can only lose two Republicans and still reach a majority on partisan votes.
Republicans had to fly in Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) after surgery this year to get 50 votes to repeal an Obama-era regulation, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had to return from brain cancer treatment to open debate on repealing Obamacare.
Senate Republicans have privately discussed the increasingly likely possibility that Strange will lose to Moore, in part because of primary voters’ disgust with the Senate GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare, senators said. Strange stood up at a party lunch on Thursday and demanded his party take one last shot at a party-line repeal before a Sept. 30 deadline.
President Donald Trump endorsed Strange and will appear with the beleaguered incumbent on Saturday in Huntsville, Alabama, a big final-hour boost. However, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the GOP primary this August, endorsed Moore on Saturday.
Indeed, polls consistently show Moore with a healthy — in some cases double-digit — lead. Strange’s campaign did not return a request for comment. The senator stepped into the Senate chamber when approached for an interview, saying he needed to talk to McCain.
Strange has significant baggage, too. While he was state attorney general, his office investigated former Gov. Robert Bentley; Bentley then appointed him to the Senate seat before resigning.
While Democrats are touting their nominee Doug Jones’ chances against either GOP candidate, most senators and strategists believe the Republican primary winner will prevail in deep red Alabama.
Cornyn said he urged Strange to concentrate on turnout during a National Republican Senatorial Committee lunch on Tuesday, rather than TV ads. The Senate’s campaign arm is mobilizing to help Strange pull off an upset: A large contingent of NRSC staffers is working on the race, both in Alabama and from Washington; one senator said it’s the bulk of the NRSC’s staff.
In addition, Strange has had millions of dollars in ads aired on his behalf by the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund. He has the support of virtually all of his Senate colleagues except for Cruz, who says he doesn’t get involved in primaries involving incumbents.
Senate Republicans working on the race are publicly confident their last-minute push will elect Strange.
“I’m not even going to speculate. I think Luther Strange will win,” insisted NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), when asked about having to work with Moore.
But Republican senators say things are increasingly grim and the campaign against Moore is faltering.
The caucus is now “concerned that Strange is not gonna win,” said a second GOP senator who requested anonymity.
Though Senate Republicans want to attack Moore, many believe it would only fuel his campaign against them and make him more likely to seek retribution if he wins. Instead, they’re promoting Strange as a team player who’s more likely to deliver for Alabama, which relies more on federal aid than most other states, according to the Tax Foundation.
Strange “has been very much been a senator in the mode of Jeff Sessions,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “And you don’t know what anybody but him would do in that job.”
“Luther’s opponent wants to send a message. I think in Luther’s case he’s extremely qualified, already here, already a good senator,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who serves on the panel alongside Strange.
A win by Moore win could embolden conservative insurgents to challenge Flake and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and potentially Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
That’s a nightmare for Republicans that are trying to add to their majority next year — 10 Democrats are up for reelection in states that Trump won last year — not play defense.
“I hope he makes it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “‘Cause if there’s no place for Luther Strange, then we’re all in trouble.”