As the shockwaves from Democrat Doug Jones’ victory washed over Capitol Hill on Wednesday, moderate Republicans chose to see the bright side—that their party might refrain from nominating candidates far outside the mainstream in future elections. But more conservative lawmakers just seemed to hope everyone would look away and move along with their business.
“I don’t know that there’s any lesson to be learned from what happened in Alabama other than the people in Alabama elected a new senator. I don’t draw any conclusion from a special election from one state during a non-presidential year.” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“It’s a special election. It wasn’t a wave election. It doesn’t change the way I view the world existentially. It was low turnout,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told The Daily Beast. To the contrary, turnout was more than 40 percent, according to the Alabama secretary of state’s office. It was projected to be around 25 percent.
“I don’t see any deep inner meaning. I will say it is quite a feat for a Democrat to win a state that is so reliably red as Alabama,” Kennedy added. “But that’s why God made elections. You let people vote and it’s up to them. And sometimes our people surprise us—sometimes they surprise themselves.”
The Alabama race was so unusual that it saw a top Republican senator donating to the Democrat’s campaign and actively trying to work against the nominee of his own party.
“The loss of Roy Moore is good news for Republicans,” retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast. Flake donated $100 to Jones in the waning days of the campaign, inscribing the message “country over party” on the check.
The Arizona senator acknowledged that Jones’ win, by reducing the GOP’s majority in the Senate from 52-48 to 51-49, might jeopardize some key legislative agenda items in 2018. But he said it was “infinitely better” for the GOP, in the long term, to be Moore-free. Many of his colleagues—while not going as far as to support Jones financially or otherwise—agreed.
“I know we’re supposed to cheer for our side of the aisle, if you will,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said. “But I’m really, really happy with what happened for all of us in our nation, for people serving in the Senate, to not have to deal with what we were likely going to have to deal with should the outcome have been the other way.”
Had Moore won, Democrats were prepared to use the former Alabama state Supreme Court judge as a political cudgel against Republicans running for office in 2018—everything from his questionable stances on civil rights issues to his decades-long anti-gay crusades. Senate Republicans were terrified enough of that prospect that they ran away from Moore en masse. But Flake was alone in outwardly supporting Jones.
“Alabamians didn’t want somebody who dated 14-year-old girls,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said bluntly, referring to the multiple women who came forward last month alleging that Moore sexually pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 20s and 30s. If Alabamians had chosen Moore over Jones, Moore would have almost immediately faced a Senate Ethics Committee investigation upon being seated in Washington. Republicans were relieved on Wednesday knowing that they would not have to deal with any of that. But the long-term legislative implications were looming large.
On votes that require a 50-vote majority, Republican leaders now have a much smaller margin of error when it comes to pleasing moderate lawmakers such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who has been the deciding vote on key legislative agenda items including health care and tax reform. Collins acknowledged that Jones’ election could give her more power among her conference.
“What I hope will happen is that there will be more bipartisan efforts because that narrow of a margin and the likelihood that the new Alabama senator will probably be more centrist, there’s a real possibility of doing some bipartisan work,” she said.
There was plenty of soul searching, too. Some, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been down this road before. McConnell has lamented for years that voters in some states have chosen candidates in GOP primaries who are too far outside the mainstream of Republican thought to win in a general election. Some lawmakers—particularly those who opposed Moore and urged him to drop out after he was accused of sexual misconduct—used the Alabama result as an “I told you so” moment.
“Candidate recruitment is still absolutely the most important part, and candidate selection is the way you win elections,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) told The Daily Beast. “And in this particular case, the Republican Party did not select the right candidate to win in a general election. And I think all the different factions that make up a party should learn something from that.”
When asked about former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s boosting of Moore and candidates like him who are running to unseat Republican incumbents in next year’s midterm elections, Rounds said, “If you can agree with somebody 80 percent of the time, then they’re your friend and you should be supporting them.” Bannon has targeted Republicans whom he believes do not do enough to support President Trump and his agenda.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL)—who said he did not vote for Moore in Tuesday’s election and argued that Alabama “deserves better”—seemed to delight in declaring that Bannon “had a bad night.” Shelby said he doesn’t think Bannon will go away anytime soon but hopes he will stop inserting himself into congressional races in a way that jeopardizes the GOP’s majorities on Capitol Hill.
“He doesn’t speak for me or mainstream Republicans,” Shelby said of Bannon.
Most GOP lawmakers appeared relieved that the Alabama race was over, no matter the outcome. When Shelby denounced Moore on Sunday, for example, Jones’ campaign immediately began running digital ads featuring Shelby’s comments. When asked if he regretted giving ammunition to Jones ahead of Election Day, Shelby demurred.
“I try to put principle above politics,” he said.
—Jackie Kucinich contributed reporting.