President Trump’s margin of support — among the American people and in Congress — was already thin. After Tuesday’s defeat in Alabama, it is decidedly thinner, and more than the loss of one Republican senator’s vote would suggest.
The win by Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in one of the nation’s reddest states demonstrated the limits of Trump’s power to help the Republican Party in key congressional races and the potential for Democrats to rally voters against one of the least popular presidents in history.
It will also mean Republicans have one less vote to spare in the Senate, where a 51-49 majority will make passing major legislation even more difficult than it has been in Trump’s rocky first year absent compromises with emboldened Democrats.
And those Republicans who remain will have more motivation and leverage to decide what’s best for their own political futures, rather than Trump’s, prompting more of them to buck the president or demand major concessions for their votes.
Trump and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell are hoping to wrap up their tax cut legislation before Jones is sworn in, guaranteeing at least one big victory before the new congressional math sets in. But even that is uncertain.
Democrats are mounting a protest, using the sort of arguments that McConnell used in the past to block Democrats from voting on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland — that the voters’ choice should have an opportunity to weigh in on major decisions. McConnell blocked a vote on Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia, for most of a year, arguing that the Senate should wait for a new president to be elected.
Even if McConnell bucks Democratic demands to seat Jones before a final tax vote, as is likely, he and Trump will have to close the deal with House Republicans on a bill that is unpopular with voters, adding to the caution of wavering Republicans. Late holdouts such as Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Marco Rubio of Florida could demand more concessions for their support.
Trump plans to give a tax speech on Wednesday and is likely to contend, as he has in the past, that the legislation is vital to show voters that Republicans are delivering on a promise.
Rep. Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who leads the tax-writing committee, said on Fox on Wednesday morning that Moore’s defeat would not alter the timeline for voting on the tax cuts, with votes expected next week in the House and Senate. Nor does it add pressure to deliver a victory, he said.
“We put pressure on ourselves,” Brady said. “Our tax code is a monster and it’s really hurting American families. We pledged to change it.”
The new political reality could also complicate negotiations over immigration and an essential bill to fund the government and keep it open beyond the holidays.
But it’s not just the short term that will be affected.
Republicans will have to grapple with the political weaknesses exposed by the Moore loss at least through next year’s midterm election campaigns if not beyond. Turnout was notably down among rural voters in conservative, white parts of Alabama, areas where Trump traditionally performs best. Democrats were far more motivated, especially in the counties with large black populations and suburbs where white, more educated voters reside.
For Trump, it was a third straight loss, further undermining his aura of influence among the party’s base voters.
He had endorsed Luther Strange, the senator appointed to fill the seat Jeff Sessions left to become Trump’s attorney general, in Alabama’s Republican primary. When Moore won, he then endorsed Moore for the general election, even as fellow Republicans, including McConnell, warned that association with Moore would sully the party. Trump also held a rally on Friday in Florida, near the Alabama border, explicitly using it to promote Moore and undercut the credibility of one of Moore’s accusers.
Yet Trump, as he typically does, worked to escape blame after the voting was over — with a tweet.
“The reason I originally endorsed Luther Strange (and his numbers went up mightily), is that I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election,” Trump wrote. “I was right!”
Moore, who faced allegations of preying on young girls decades ago, had “the deck stacked against him!” Trump wrote.
Trump said that Moore’s loss justified his initial endorsement of Strange, though he’d privately complained after Strange’s defeat that Republican establishment leaders had steered wrong in getting him to back the incumbent. Contrary to Trump’s latest tweet, Strange did not see a big change in support after the president’s endorsement.
Despite his losses, Trump can look to his past Democratic predecessors for precedents suggesting even big setbacks aren’t fatal.
Presidents Clinton and Obama both suffered devastating congressional losses in their first midterm elections — Clinton saw Democrats lose majorities in both the House and Senate, and Obama in the House — only to recover and win reelection two years later. Obama, like Trump now, also took a huge blow at a similar point in his presidency when Republican Scott Brown won a special election in deep-blue Massachusetts after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Still, neither president subsequently enjoyed legislative success as great as in their first year with a Congress controlled by their party.
Moore’s defeat leaves a major target on Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor who remains very influential in both the White House and conservative media, and the nemesis of McConnell and other party leaders. The head of Breitbart News, Bannon urged Trump to back Moore and campaigned vigorously for him. Mainstream Republicans, who have long been cold toward Bannon, eagerly lashed out, urging Bannon to lower his profile.
“After Alabama disaster GOP must do right thing and DUMP Steve Bannon,” Rep. Peter King, a moderate New York Republican, tweeted. “His act is tired, inane and morally vacuous. If we are to Make America Great Again for all Americans, Bannon must go! And go NOW!!”
Bannon is unlikely to back down in his war on the establishment, which could further widen the party schism.
Breitbart News led with Trump’s “Deck is stacked” tweet Wednesday morning and ran a second story blaming “Republican saboteurs” for the loss.
Trump, however, seemed to be coming around to the establishment’s thinking about Moore, if not Bannon, suggesting the Alabamian had been a flawed candidate.
“If last night’s election proved anything, it proved that we need to put up GREAT Republican candidates to increase the razor thin margins in both the House and Senate,” he tweeted.